Updated: Aug 16
Microgreens have been around since the 1980’s, but only in the last decade have they started trickling into restaurants and recipe books across the nation. Recently, they’ve exploded in popularity and earned recognition as a “superfood” due to their impressive nutritional content and numerous health benefits.
Despite being relatively new on the culinary scene, you probably had your first encounter with microgreens during your childhood without even realizing it. Remember Chia pets? Those little terracotta figurines of dogs and cats that, once covered in seeds, became tiny sculpture gardens? Those seeds, like the name implies, are chia seeds, a relative of the mint family known for their superfood properties like antioxidants, omega 3-fatty acids, and other essential nutrients.
What the Chia pets didn’t teach us at the time is that those little green sprouts would be much better additions to a salad, pasta, or smoothie than pasted onto a statue. Luckily, we know much more about microgreens and their numerous health benefits now than we did several decades ago, so we can absolutely fix that.
1. What Are Microgreens?
Chia seeds might be the best-known example in popular cultural, but they’re far from the only variety of microgreen in the world.
In building-block terms, microgreens are sproutlings of common herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers that are harvested within the first 14 days after they emerge from their seeds.
Unlike sprouts, which are plucked as soon as they burst from the ground and have their roots intact, microgreens are between 1-1.5 inches tall, have a “true” set of leaves, and do not include their roots.
They come in a rainbow of different colors and textures, with flavors ranging from mild to bitter to spicy. Essentially, they’re itty-bitty versions of many of the herbs and veggies you normally encounter in a supermarket or restaurant. In their smallest form, those veggies are packed full of additional vitamins and nutrients that are lost as the plant naturally ages. Hence, the micro-version of these plants are “superfoods” while the adult versions are just the plain old herbs and veggies we know and love.
Here are some of the most popular varieties of microgreens according to Fresh Origin Farms, a farm that specializes in growing these tiny greens: Arugula, Beets, Basil, Celery, Chard, Chervil, Cilantro, Fennel, Kale, Parsley, Radish, Red Cabbage, Sorrel, and Spinach. There are other varieties as well, but these are the ones you are most likely to encounter at a grocery store, farmer’s market, or restaurant.
2. Health Benefits of Microgreens
Don’t let their petite size fool you. Microgreens are gold mines of essential vitamins and nutrients.
Microgreens have a number of health benefits, including boosting your immune system, heart health, bone and joint health, lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, and reducing your risk of diabetes. They’re also filled with lots of positive nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, vitamin K, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, and antioxidants.
All the same good things found in full-grown vegetables, right? Not quite. In fact, a scientific study by the University of Maryland revealed that microgreens contained up to forty times the nutritional content of adult plants of the same species. Would you rather eat 40 cabbages or one cabbage sprout?
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common varieties of microgreens and the health benefits they offer:
· Arugula, or “Rocket”: Antioxidants to boost your immune system
· Beets: High in iron and vitamin K
· Chia: Loaded with antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids for heart health
· Cilantro: High in beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin for eye health
· Fennel: Amino acids for muscle and brain health
· Kale: Immune-system boosting vitamin C and cancer-fighting antioxidants
· Lettuce: High in antioxidants to help your body fight sickness
· Red cabbage: Saturated with vitamins C, E, and K, and also thought to lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
· Sunflowers: High protein content which is great for athletes and bodybuilders
As you can see, there are quite a few health benefits for including microgreens in your diet. Since each green has its own unique nutritional makeup, it’s best to get a variety of greens and mix them together so you get a bit of everything.
Stop by my Facebook Page (Clean Eats Street) for a video recipe for Chia Seed Pudding.
Now that we know a bit more about the history and nutritional value of microgreens, let’s talk about the best part: eating them!
3. What Are Microgreens Used For? Microgreens are used as both an ingredient and a garnish. Although quite small, they have a big reputation for adding nutrition, color, flavor, and texture to meals. Popular dishes for spicing up with microgreens include salads, deli sandwiches, soups, and pastas, but really you can throw them in just about anything for an extra dash of flavor and nutrition.
Plus, microgreens are easy to prepare because cooking them is not recommended. Instead, gently wash them to remove any dirt or bacteria and simply mix them in with other greens, like salad leaves, or place them on top of your meal as a vitamin-packed garnish.
Since microgreens have spiked in popularity, there are a lot of recipes out there for all different flavor palettes and experience levels. Dishes range from the gourmet to the down-to-earth. There are even recipes specifically for people who are not fans of salad!
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can use a handful of microgreens to garnish mixed drinks or blend them into your smoothies. Since many microgreens are just younger versions of traditional cocktail mixers like mint and basil, it’s not as strange as it sounds. You can have all the health benefits of a veggie salad while sipping on a cool, refreshing beverage.
All told, microgreens are wonderfully healthy and easy to cook with. Since they are derived from common vegetables and herbs, it’s fairly easy to incorporate them into recipes you already know and love, or find new and innovative ways to introduce them into your diet.
Much of microgreens’ popularity stems from their immense health benefits, but some of their recent gain in fame is due to how easy they are to grow on your own. Unlike full-sized vegetables and herbs which require a large garden, or at the very least a suitably sized outdoor container garden, microgreens can grow in a small indoor space with minimal maintenance.
Read on to learn more about you can kick-start your container garden by using things you already having around your place.
4. How to Grow Microgreens
Although microgreens can be purchased at many grocery stores, they can be quite pricey at $30 for one pound. For perspective, you can get a seed packet from your local greenhouse or hardware store for $1-$3 per packet. Growing them is a budget-friendly alternative for having fresh greens at the ready for mealtime.
All you need is a green thumb, seeds, and a few simple items to get started. (And if you don’t have a green thumb, no worries, microgreens are pretty easy to grow because you only need to keep them alive for about 10 days).
Here are some popular, beginner-friendly seeds to get started on:
· Chia (of Chia Pet fame!)
Once you pick out your seeds, you will need a container and a sunny spot to grow your seedlings in. Disposable pie containers and plastic take-out trays both work great. Be sure to poke a few holes in the containers to ensure your seedlings don’t drown!
Next, scoop in a thin layer of soil. Ideally, you want 1-2 inches of soil for your seeds to take root in. Although they won’t be in there for very long, the nutrients in the soil will help them grow faster and healthier.
Once your container is filled with dirt, sprinkle your seeds on top of the soil. You can choose to use just on type of seed or a mixture of different species in one container.
Almost done! Once your seeds are in place, cover them with a little more soil. This protects them from drying out in the open air.
Place the tray on a sunny window and wait for your sprouts to appear. To keep them from drying out, you can mist them with water from a spray bottle.
If this sounds like more work than you planned on signing up for, you can pick up a pre-assembled microgreen kit to get your windowsill micro-garden up and running.
Regardless of which route you take with the set-up, your sprouts will be ready to harvest around 10-15 days after they emerge from their seeds, or about the time you notice they’ve grown their first set of “true” leaves. To harvest your microgreens, simply take a (clean) pair of scissors and snip the stems just above the dirt.
For maximum freshness, use them right away. Once they’re harvested, they can last up to 7 days if properly stored in a sealed bag inside your refrigerator. Once they start to look limp, soft, or discolored, you should throw them away and harvest a new batch.
So, what do you think? Are microgreens the tiny, high-efficiency superfoods they claim to be, or are they just today’s fad?
When microgreens first emerged as a trendy garnish at upscale restaurants in the 1980’s, there wasn’t much evidence in favor for or against their superfood status. As their popularity spread from exclusive restaurant kitchens into the pantries of households across America, the scientific and nutritional communities began taking a closer look at them.
Recent studies like the experiment conducted by the University of Maryland indicate that microgreens indeed do pack a more powerful nutritional punch than their grown-up counterparts.
Their nutritional value plus the convenience of being able to grow them in a fast-food container on your kitchen window have both contributed to the rise of the microgreen’s popularity. And if you’re unsure about microgreens, you could always just let your sprouts grow to full-size and enjoy them as adult veggies.