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Growing Safe Sprouts Indoors Over Winter
Q. I grow sprouts in the winter as I wait for the Phillies to leave Clearwater and Spring to come to The Garden State. However, I have been warned of the dangers of sprouting. It's said that sprouting creates conditions that are ideal for the growth of bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli. I use various methods to grow my sprouts 1) a Mason jar with a cheesecloth top 2) organic soil with seeds in a small tray; and 3) spreading seeds on a moist paper towel in a tray. I get about the same results. Do you know the safest and/or best way to grow sprouts? Any thoughts on sprouting safety?
---Don in Lawrenceville, NJ
A. Food safety is a topic that you have to take very seriously. Let's begin with information from an article published while I was the editor in chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, written by staff editor Scott Meyer (who went on to become the editor after I left to do radio) and rigorously fact-checked by our excellent research department.
One thing mentioned by professionals quoted in the article was the classic cheesecloth that most people use to cover the open end of their sprouting jar, so that they can easily drain the container after rinsing. Several felt that nylon and similar synthetic materials would be much more mold and disease resistant. (Yes, I ethically prefer organic cotton, but sometimes you have to be smart as well as ethical. And this could be the 'old pantyhose' use you've been waiting for!)
Everyone agreed that absolute sterilization of the sprouting container is paramount; you have to be obsessive about washing it in really hot water. And frequent rinsing of the sprouts; twice a day is the minimum, but some commercial growers rinse every hour—some every five minutes!
Okay—now let's back up a bit and give the elevator pitch on sprouting.
Essentially you take the seeds of certain crops—familiar ones like alfalfa and mung beans (the classic 'bean sprouts') and less obvious ones like radish, cabbage, sunflower, garbanzo beans, clover, buckwheat, peas, broccoli and lentils. Soak them in filtered or purified water in a sterilized glass container for several hours, empty the water and then begin rinsing the seeds at fairly high water pressure and draining them completely several times a day.
Then eat them as soon as the seeds sprout—which can be 2 to 3 days for wheat and mung beans and up to a week for alfalfa. Don't let them sit around: the faster the better.
…In two ways! You want to choose seeds that germinate quickly, because fast growing means less time for problems to develop. And you want to consume them right way, so that problems don't have time to develop in storage.
Another thing to look for is a high germination rate—the percentage of seeds in a packet that tests have shown will grow. A professional "Sproutman" that Scott interviewed said he wouldn't consider using seeds with a germination rate lower than 90%, and preferred rates in the high nineties--because any seeds that don't sprout become a breeding ground for mold.
Be compulsive about drainage. You want to rinse the seeds several times a day and you want zero water left in your container afterwards. Just storing the jar upside down over an open space provides huge levels of protection. And because most of the commercial sprout recalls have involved e. coli, I'd stick with seeds that were organically grown. Organic regulations prohibit the use of the raw manures that can cause e. coli contamination.
And what about our listener's sprouting in trays of "organic soil"? (As opposed to the inorganic kind??? Sheesh—Where do people come up with these phrases?)
Anyway, 'sprouting' tiny edibles in trays of 'soil' (which in this case means seed starting mix or premium potting soil) produces not sprouts, but micro-greens—THE hottest trend in market gardening and home growing right now. And when you grow baby greens in a soil-free mix under a rack of bright lights you practically eliminate disease issues—as long as you don't overwater, of course. And you can do it all 'season' long over the worst of winters.
Just be aware that sprouting and micro-green growing are two very different things. Elizabeth Millard, the "Indoor Kitchen Gardening" author we had on the show recently covers both methods in her excellent book. She notes that the range of seeds you can use for each technique is fairly similar, with sprouts generally being edible within a week and microgreens in two weeks. What both have in common is that they're much more nutritious per gram than the edible parts of the full grown plant.
That's right; these techniques aren't just a way to garden indoors. Produced carefully and correctly, sprouted seeds and little baby greens are nutritional powerhouses.
Now: what about our listener's third version—sprouting on moist paper towels?
That sounds more like an old school germination test to me; something you try with sample seeds from an old pack to see if they're still viable. But if it works and the sprouts look and smell right, more power to him.
Yes. Indoor gardening expert Millard says that a good sniff is your best protection against bad sprouts. Give them the smell test; and "when in doubt, throw it out!"
Excuse me: "when it doubt, compost or worm bin it!"