What are microgreens?

Summary: Microgreens are plants that are harvested in the second stage of the seed development cycle and offer intense flavor and are a great source of nutritional value.

Microgreens have taken the culinary world by storm, and chefs from Los Angeles to New York are topping small plates with the colorful robust flavors of these tiny plant powerhouses. Although delicate in nature, microgreens pack a punch nutritionally and offer a wide variety of flavors and colors to add (almost) calorie-free intensity to your cooking. With so much recent press about microgreens, there is still some mystery surrounding what they actually are, what nutritional impact they have, and how they can be grown at home.

The Down and Dirty of Microgreens

What many people don’t understand about microgreens is that they are a stage of growth rather than a particular type of plant. In other words, a wide variety of plants such as broccoli, kale, mustard greens, radishes, cilantro, basil, and many others, all are used in their microgreen form. There are basically 3 stages of development in plants, and microgreens are the second stage of development.

  1. Germination is the first stage a vegetable goes through when the seed is planted and begins to sprout. This often takes about 4-7 days and yields a tiny shoot you know as a sprout.
  2. The second stage of a seed’s development is when its first leaves open, and these leaves are called cotyledons. If plants are harvested at this stage they are known as microgreens. For most microgreens, this is 1-2 weeks.
  3. If a plant is allowed to keep on growing, it establishes its true leaves and continues on to be a full-fledged plant with large ripe fruit.

Origin of Microgreens

Although technically microgreens have been around forever since they are really just the second stage of a seed’s development, it took some creativity from California to really put them on the map. Typically, researchers point to the origins of microgreens’ popularity in San Francisco in the late 1980s, when chefs started offering their rainbow of offerings.

At first, the microgreens were touted for their intensity of flavor; they are generally more robust than their full-fledged counterparts. They also were enjoyed for the variety of flavors and textures. As researchers learned, they also offer nutrients and antioxidants that even their full-grown counterparts cannot equal.

Health and Nutritional Benefits

Vegetables offer many health benefits to start with, and microgreens especially pack quite a nutritional punch. Studies show that there is a higher percentage of nutrients in microgreens when compared to their mature counterparts.

  • The chlorophyll developed in the seedling is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory and some evidence suggests this guards against anemia.
  • Plants produce phytonutrients to protect themselves from stress and environmental poisons, and they can do the same for humans. The brassica family, including kale, cabbage, and broccoli, is especially powerful. The phenolic antioxidants offer high levels of Vitamin E as well.
  • Each microgreen comes from a different plant, so they do not have the exact same health profile, but most are rich in iron, zinc, potassium, copper, and magnesium. These help the body. with oxidative stress, inflammation, and immunity.
  • Antioxidants help with the body’s containment of free radicals, which subsequently aids in your body’s fight against cancer.
  • Because each microgreen comes from a different vegetable, the nutrition varies for each one. From Vitamin A to zinc, microgreens offer a host of health benefits too numerous to list here.

Flavors & Uses

Microgreens are known for their wide variety of flavors. In most cases, the microgreen version mirrors the full-grown version, but often with a sharper flavor. Some examples include:

  • Mustard green microgreens have a sharper taste than the full-grown version, akin to horseradish.
  • Radish microgreens are even more peppery than their mature counterparts.
  • Microgreen peas capitalize on their sweetness.
  • Beets microgreens have a deep root-like flavor.

How can I use microgreens in my diet?

  • They offer a pop of color and are a beautiful addition to any plate or presentation.
  • They can top hot dishes like pizza, soups, and pasta dishes to add a depth of flavor.
  • Use in a salad for a sublime presentation and a variety of leaves.
  • Blend into a smoothie with fruits and protein powder for a healthy easy meal.

Reasons for Implementing Microgreens in Your Diet

There are many reasons you should implement microgreens in your diet.

  • The health benefits are promising; filled with antioxidants, microgreens can help tame free radicals that can lead to cancer.
  • Each microgreen offers different nutrients that will keep your body healthy, so eat a variety.
  • Microgreens are tasty. They add a plethora of flavor without a lot of calories.
  • Microgreens can make your cooking more colorful and enjoyable.

Process of Growing Microgreens

Growing microgreens is a fairly simple process, even for brand new gardeners. You can grow microgreens in soil or hydroponically. Because the microgreens are so delicate, growing them hydroponically (in water) eliminates the need to wash the soil off them at harvest time, which can often lead to bruising.

  1. Choose and store the seeds carefully. Buy seeds from a reputable company and choose untreated or organically grown seeds.
  2. Soak the seeds. Some growers choose to soak the seeds first before they sow them to aid in germination. This could be done simply by covering the seeds with water in a Rubbermaid container for 6-8 hours. The soaking gets rid of errant chemicals that may be attached to hulls and also opens seeds to better germination.
  3. Sow the seeds in trays. Make sure to spread the soil evenly and then plant the seeds. Some growers cover them with soil, some with paper towels, and some leave the seeds uncovered.
  4. Spray the seeds so they are wet and cover the tray with a plastic lid for the germination process. Darkness is best for this, and keep a close eye on the moisture of the tray. The soil, especially, will dry out quickly.
  5. Once they germinate, which will generally take 4-7 days, make sure the seeds have enough water and light. Depending on where you live and the time of year, you may need to add artificial light.
  6. Microgreens grow quickly and most will be ready to eat in 1-2 weeks. Harvest with sharp scissors or a knife in order to not bruise the fragile plants.
  7. Store them carefully in a plastic container or bag, and keep the harvested microgreens as dry as possible.
  8. Eat them quickly! Though they will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, they lose a lot of flavors, crunch, and nutritional value as time goes on.

Top Tips for Getting Started

There are so many reasons to grow microgreens and so many tips to help you do it successfully. Growing microgreens is an easy hobby that can save you money since the fragility of microgreens and the short growing season in many parts of the country causes them to be expensive. Growing microgreens involves some trial and error on the grower’s part, but since they grow so quickly you can fix your mistakes easily. Here are a few important tips to help you get started.

  • Store seeds carefully in a cool dry place before you plant them. Many people ruin their harvest before they start by allowing seeds to mold.
  • You don’t have to break the bank to grow microgreens. You can improvise and use recycled plastic fruit containers or other containers to grow your greens.
  • Make sure to keep the trays moist when germinating. Germination happens quickly, but the seeds must be damp at all times.
  • Check the ph levels of the water. Microgreens grow best in an acidic environment. If you use tap water, consider a carbon filter to remove the chlorine, which can yellow the leaves of microgreens.
  • When it is time to harvest, cut microgreens with a sharp blade. This prevents bruising.
  • Eat them fast. Microgreens should be eaten within a few days for maximum flavor and nutrition.

Microgreens have grown in popularity recently because they are easy to grow, offer intense flavor, and are a great source of nutritional value. The short growing time makes it easy for new gardeners to experiment with different varieties, and to add some low-calorie flavor and health benefits to their diets. Whether you grow radish, kale, or pea microgreens, you will gain the taste and health benefits in a few weeks if you follow these simple steps.

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