This post contains affiliate links. By clicking one of these links and purchasing something, you will never pay a penny more, but a portion of the proceeds will go to HerbSpeak to help us continue to create and develop more booklets, articles, and guides just like this.
Chances are, you’ve heard about this new trend, microgreens. They look a lot like sprouts, but they’re not quite as long and spindly, and anyone who is familiar with microgreens will argue tooth and nail that they’re not sprouts at all.
So, what are they?
The mystery is unraveled in this article from HerbSpeak. These plants give you a whole new way to incorporate greens into any meal, boosting the nutrition you get from whole foods.
Today, you’ll learn everything you need to know about microgreens, from what they really are, to their nutritional content, and even easy ways to add the fun little plants to your homecooked meals.
What Are Microgreens?
You might be surprised to learn that microgreens are exactly what they sound like – they are micro greens.
To put it a different way, these are plants that have been allowed to germinate, but not allowed to grow into adulthood, where they might become bitter and difficult to chew.
A plant is considered a microgreen when it has germinated and showing its cotyledon before the true leaves emerge on the plant.
Once the true leaves emerge, they are no longer considered microgreens and are instead immature versions of the full vegetable, flower, or herb. This distinction is important because the immature plants that have grown true leaves tend to become bitter and unappealing as their chemistry changes and they continue to develop.
These plants are often grown and sold in packages that contain several hundred of the harvested leaves and stems at a time. Though they are fewer than with sprouts, you may still see some seed hulls in the package. These may be removed if they are large enough or eaten with the plant if they are small.
While their size can vary depending on the type of plant and method of growing, the plants are often harvested before they can get too tall, leaving most leafy microgreens between 1 and 3 inches in height each.
Are Microgreens Just Baby Plants?
Yes, microgreens are essentially “baby plants”, but they’re not the same as those “baby brussels sprouts” or “baby spinach” you might find in the supermarket. Those are the young leaves of the mature vegetable or plant that would otherwise be eaten at maturity.
Microgreens are instead the stem and cotyledon (embryonic leaf) of those same plants. If you plant cauliflower, for example, you’d typically eat the crown and no other parts of the plant. Cauliflower microgreens, on the other hand, are the same plant that has only had a few days to grow. That plant hasn’t yet developed and changed into its adult form.
How Nutritious Are Microgreens?
The intense, aromatic leaves may leave you wondering how nutritious the baby plants are. (1) After all, plants are packed with a variety of phytonutrients that are healthy for our bodies, but how does it compare to letting the full vegetable or herb grow in?
On the whole, the microgreens contained more nutrients than their fully-grown selves.
There are indeed reports that certain microgreens contain higher concentrations of phytochemicals present in the edible parts of the adult plants. This makes sense, as the plant chemistry changes as it matures.
Different types of microgreens will also have different nutritional values as they are different plants.
It is important to note that these reports are typically only assessing one type of microgreen for a single nutrient. In no way does this dismiss the nutritional benefits of microgreens, but you should be wary of anyone who tries to make it out as a “miracle solution.”
Still, microgreens are filled to the brim with good nutrients and are a great way to get your daily greens without having to scarf down too many vegetables with each meal.
Microgreens are best known for being rich in potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, and other antioxidants.
What Plants are Microgreens?
Chances are, you’ve seen microgreens at your local supermarket, but unless you were familiar with the way each individual plant looked at its seedling stage, then you might not know what plant you are purchasing. Sometimes, growers will simply label the packages as “Microgreens” without any other explanation.
To the everyday person who isn’t engrossed in the micro world, that is confusing. Below, however are the most common types of microgreens that you might see in the store and their identifying features.
Keep in mind that color may vary, as color can be influenced by environmental factors during growth as well as what variety of the particular plant it is.
This type of microgreen has strong leaves and has a very deep green appearance. The leaves are split, with two half-heart lobes on either side of the meristem. The stems take on a uniform whitish-green appearance. Leaves and stems may appear red depending on the variety. The flavor has strong, spicy notes of radish if grown and harvested correctly, and tend to be usable as an all-purpose green.
This type of microgreen has strong, stiffly green leaves that tend to feel almost rubbery. The two sides extend outwards, as if they were propellers for the light green to white stem. It has an intense, oily flavor of sunflower seeds throughout the stem and leaves. Sunflower greens are able to be used in a variety of dishes, even as desserts.
Pea microgreens are long microgreens of a variety of colors, typically white or yellow. These microgreens do not have much in the way of leaves to note, but they have extra-tall stems which are typically thick and crunchy. Peas have a strongly “fresh” flavor and can be used in a variety of light meals from stir fry to salad.
Different Types of Microgreens
There are several types of microgreens, and each one has nutrients from that type of plant. Typically, these types are divided by the plant family:
Commonly known as the Broccoli family, this type of microgreen is by far the most popular choice for culinary use because of the nutritional content, taste, and ease of growing. This plant family is home to broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, watercress, radish and arugula, all of which are common to find at any microgreens stand.
Commonly known as the Daisy family, this type of microgreen is the second most popular choice for taste. Home to the sunflower, lettuce, endive, and chicory plants, these give any dish an earthy sprinkling of flavor.
Commonly known as the Dill family, this type of microgreen is home to the herbal flavors of dill, carrot, fennel, and celery. These make a wonderful garnish atop almost any dinner.
Commonly known as the Amaryllis family, this type of microgreen is home to the more intense flavors of garlic, onions, and leeks.
Commonly known as the Amaranth family, this type of microgreen is home to several of the more earthy flavors in amaranth, quinoa, swiss chard, beets, and spinach. Yum!
Commonly known as the melon family, this type of microgreen is home to the crunchy and sweet flavors of melons, cucumbers, and squash.
What is the Use of Microgreens?
Microgreens have several uses, adding to dishes with any predominant flavor. Whether you are working with a sweet or savory dish, there is a microgreen that is perfect for what you are cooking.
These micro greens may be used either fresh or cooked, though it is best to cook micros that are strong and thick to prevent significant wilting.
Fresh microgreens are more likely to impart subtle flavors and provide a satisfying crunch. These are great on sandwiches, salads, and even on cooked dishes where they are used as a fresh garnish to add texture and flavor.
Cook Your Veggies
Cooked microgreens are more likely to add flavor to dishes that absorb flavor – such as chicken or tofu – but other strong flavors in the dish may overwhelm the taste of microgreens, particularly if they are thin.
It’s Powder Time
Another great use of microgreens is to dehydrate and powder the greens for use as smoothie powders. Fortunately, a little goes a long way with these greens, providing you with a great nutritional boost even in small smoothies.
Is It Risky to Eat Microgreens?
We’ve all heard the reports of E. coli on lettuce and food poisoning from undercooked chicken, so it might make you wonder about microgreens. Is it safe to eat them?
No, microgreens are generally considered safe, even as most are grown locally outside of standard commercial greenhouses.
While all produce does have some risk of bacterial growth that can be missed during the final packaging and quality control stage, they are even considered safer than sprouts, as microgreens are grown in open-air conditions that make them less likely to have bacterial growth than sprouts, which are grown in enclosed conditions.
In most cases, your microgreens will have a batch number and date harvested to ensure any illness can be traced back to certain growing conditions.
Still, it’s important to practice good culinary preparation habits to take the extra step in protecting yourself, even beyond preparing microgreens.
These habits, like avoiding the use of visibly rotten greens, rinsing the greens gently before use, and sanitizing any equipment (like cutting boards and knives) between uses, are great standards even in the home kitchen.
How to Add Microgreens to Your Diet
There are so many wonderful ways you can add microgreens to your diet. All it takes is a little willingness to experiment, and you’ll find the right solution for you. You’ll be surprised how easy it is, too!
Soups are a wonderful way to incorporate microgreens. Microgreens may be blended in with the base or added on top for a crunchy garnish. Choose from a variety of pairings – broccoli micros with cheddar or potato soup, radish micros with beet soup, sunflower micros with tomato soup – the possibilities are endless.
Microgreens are perfect in salads, adding a satisfying crunch to your lunch or dinner greens, helping keep the flavors varied and exciting. Sunflowers, radish, and arugula are all popular salad favorites, but with a little creativity, you can play with the flavors even more.
Microgreens add a delicious crunch to many different types of sandwiches both hot and cold. Layer a few in with your other sandwich ingredients and enjoy delicious nutrition!
Thicker microgreens like peas are best suited to stir fry so they retain their crunch better, and it is best to cook them on a low heat towards the end of the meal. Still, these can replace the wonderful crunch of bean sprouts and still pack a powerful nutritional value.
Sprouts VS. Microgreens
If you’ve ever called sprouts and microgreens the same in the company of an urban farmer, then chances are, you’ve been corrected – perhaps passionately so – but you might not have come out with a clear understanding of the differences.
Yes, sprouts and microgreens are both grown from different types of plants and they are harvested before they are considered “mature adult produce” but there is still a world of difference between the two.
Even if they are the same plant, these characteristics set them apart in taste, texture, and often agricultural regulations.
- Microgreens are only sometimes soaked prior to seeding, and are often grown in soil or soil-less mediums (and rarely but possibly hydroponically.)
- Sprouts are soaked and germinated in water and grown on soil-less mediums such as paper towels or hemp.
- Microgreens are considered ready to harvest anywhere from 7 to 28 days from seeding depending on the variety. This includes cotyledon “embryonic” leaves and stems before the true leaves develop.
- Sprouts are considered ready to harvest anywhere from 4 to 6 days from germinating depending on the variety. This includes stems, but often no leaves, as it has not yet developed.
- Microgreens must be grown in environments with plenty of air flow between stems to prevent mold, which can develop quickly, well before the plants are ready for harvest. Proper airflow in an open environment helps reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
- Sprouts are grown quickly in enclosed spaces with little to no air flow, as they are harvested before mold can develop to a strong extent. Seeding density is important to ensure the seeds are not overcrowded, increasing the risk of foodborne illnesses.
How Do You Grow Microgreens?
Before we get started, it’s important to note that vertical farming or indoor farming has not been around as long as outdoor agricultural practices, so there are a lot of unknowns that have yet to be explored. (2) Likewise, every plant requires different light and water, and may be susceptible to different pests or ailments.
“Humans have 12,000 years of experience growing food, but only a generation or so worth of experience growing crops indoors.”
Learning how to grow microgreens is a unique experience for every new type of plant, so no two are alike.
There are, however, a few basics that every microgreen setup will need:
- Microgreen seeds (Get them from TrueLeaf here.)
- A proper microgreens tray (The top 4 most popular microgreens trays are compared here.)
- A good indoor light source. (I use these lights, and they’ve been perfect!)
- Fans for good airflow to prevent mold. (I use these and attach them to the shelf above, hanging down.)
Seed your new trays as if you are starting new plants, cover them overnight, make sure they have good airflow, keep them watered so the soil is moist, and harvest before the true leaves emerge.
A Note From the Author:
This sounds simple, and it is, but there is still a learning curve that can take you for quite the frustrating ride if you don’t do your research.
I have plenty of experience in growing microgreens, so I could talk about this in-depth for hours!
If you are interested in learning more about microgreens, please let me know in the comments below! The content you see on this website is created based on your feedback and your voice.
Which Microgreens Should You Grow?
If you’ve decided to go down the rabbit hole of growing microgreens for personal use, then you might be wondering which microgreens are best for you.
As with anything else, there are varying levels of difficulty you’ll experience throughout your time growing, and almost universally, it seems like the Broccoli family wins for the most “beginner friendly” microgreen to grow.
The consensus seems to be that, so long as you are growing a member of the Brassicaceae family, you won’t have as much trouble, but even this plant family has its different levels of difficulty.
Most people commonly start with radish microgreens before moving onto any other type.
The choice is, of course, up to you. If a particular microgreen type sparks your interest, and you have enough motivation to learn how to grow it, then I would encourage you to try it out. If you’re looking for more tips on growing specific kinds of microgreens, drop a comment in the section below!
- Huffington Post, Microgreens Have More Nutrients Than Mature Vegetables, Studies Suggest, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/microgreens-nutrients-mature-vegetables_n_1846601
- Erik Kobayashi-Solomon, Investing in Vertical Farming: Five Takeaways, https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkobayashisolomon/2019/04/05/investing-in-vertical-farming-five-take-aways/?sh=36c4031b355c