While the idea of conjuring sprouts from dusty pantry staples may sound like a magic trick, it’s really just biology
Crunchy and cooling, sprouts are an all-star ingredient in everything from banchan and bánh xèo to California veggie sandwiches. They’re also surprisingly easy to grow at home. While the idea of conjuring them from dusty dried goods might sound like a magic trick, it’s really just biology. Soaking beans, nuts, and grains in water kick-starts the process of germination, sending out delicious shoots of new life. During a time when many folks are looking for a new kitchen hobby or ways to use up bags of panic-bought beans and lentils, the practice has taken on new appeal: Not only is it practical, it’s a reminder that even in the middle of a global pandemic, life springs eternal.
“It’s a convenient way to have fresh greens on hand any time of the year,” says recipe developer Christine Wong, who began making videos on home-growing sprouts at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s something fun and gratifying about using pantry staples to grow your own food on your kitchen counter.”
All sprouts begin by soaking just about any raw whole grain, bean, or seed in water. Smaller ones, like quinoa, will only take a day or so, but sturdier choices, like chickpeas, will require a few more. The duration of the process is dependent on your end goal: Are you craving long, tender bean sprouts? Or do you dream of slightly sprouted lentils with a little extra crunch? Either way, the process of soaking and sprouting helps to unlock the food’s full nutritional potential.
“Soaking and sprouting enhances nutrient absorption and digestibility by breaking apart the outer layer of the seed, bean, or legume so your digestive tract doesn’t have to work as hard,” says Amanda Li, a registered dietitian who has been making her own sprouts for over a decade. “If you look at cultures that have been mostly plant-based, they’ve done this for centuries to enable the body to absorb the nutrients more easily and prevent things like indigestion, heavy bloats, and gas.”
There’s another, equally important benefit: Sprouts are a joy to eat. “Soybean sprouts are a Korean’s favorite vegetable,” says Korean cooking icon Maangchi. “Not many people grow them at home because you can buy them cheaply and easily, but homegrown soybean sprouts are much better quality. Of course they’ll look a little less pretty, but it’s worth growing because they are so cheap and delicious.”
Maangchi grew up watching her grandmother in Korea grow soybean sprouts for big family gatherings, even waking up in the middle of the night to drain and rinse the beans in an earthenware pot called a shiru. The resulting golden mountain of sprouts was essential for feeding large groups of people. Today, Maangchi can often be found cultivating soybean or mung bean sprouts in her New York kitchen; they form the backbone of everything from crispy pan-fried bindaetteok fritters to comforting kongnamulguk, a savory soup rooted in dried anchovies, gochugaru, and soy sauce. The crisp sprouts float in the rich broth, adding brightness and bite.
The first step in growing sprouts at home is simple: Turn to your pantry and select a raw legume, grain, or seed. If you don’t have any on hand, there’s always the store or the internet. Maangchi opts for fresh, organic soybeans from True Leaf Market, which can be bought in bulk if you’re planning to launch a sprout empire (or merely trying to stock up). Start by soaking your chosen would-be sprouts for 12 hours, until the skins begin to separate and tender shoots start to curl through. Then drain them and remove any broken or mushy offenders. “If you have them grow together, they’ll influence the nearby beans, just like human beings,” Maangchi says.
Once they’re soaked and sorted, transfer the approved crop into a large container with a lid. Li uses mesh sprouting lids designed to fit wide-mouth mason jars, which have a built-in gap between the lip of the jar and the top of the lid to allow for easy airflow. Add enough water to cover the grains, beans, or seeds a few times over (they’ll absorb water as they grow), secure some cheesecloth (or another breathable cloth) over the top, and let the mixture soak overnight.
In the morning, dump out the water (use it to water your plants!) and set the container upside down in a sink or bucket to let the soaked material drain thoroughly. Repeat the process twice a day as needed, covering whatever you’re sprouting with water and then letting it drain. Avoid direct sunlight to keep your sprouts from drying out or taking on unwanted color.
“If the beans meet the sunlight, the color changes to green, but Koreans think a yellow color is more delicious looking, and some people say they are less tough,” Maangchi says. “I always cover the top with a doubled or tripled black cloth, just like my grandma did.”
Home-growing sprouts is highly achievable, but as with other kitchen projects, it’s important to prioritize food safety. After all, those warm, humid conditions that foster sprouts can encourage bacteria too.
“The most important thing is to maintain airflow to avoid mold from forming during the growing process by rinsing the seeds twice a day and inverting the jar to drain out excess water,” says Wong.
When your sprouts are ready, dry them thoroughly before refrigerating in a sealed container for three to five days. And while raw sprouts are often spotted in salad bars and sandwiches, many food safety experts recommend cooking them to avoid foodborne illnesses that can flourish in those moist growing conditions.
“Sprouts are nutritious, but when they are consumed raw or undercooked, they can cause foodborne infections,” says Sanja Ilic, a food safety state specialist and associate professor of human nutrition at the Ohio State University. “Cooking prior to consumption is the only way to be certain that the pathogens are eliminated.” Ilic recommends thoroughly cooking sprouts to ensure their safety and storing any extras in the fridge (at 40 degrees or below) to ward off bacteria growth.
Luckily, cooked is where sprouts really shine. Their potential for transformation provides much-needed inspiration for stir-fries and soups. It’s giving me plenty of motivation to finally work through the once-toddler-size bag of lentils in my cupboard. First I’ll sprout them and then simmer them with turmeric and tamarind for mooga mole randayi curry. Then I’ll roast the remainder into crispy cumin-dusted morsels. It will take a few days, but with a bit of water and patience, my all-too-familiar pantry staples will be reborn.