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What Are Microgreens?

The days of throwing a flimsy piece of curly parsley as a garnish on a dinner plate are long gone. As food has become more of a cultural experience instead of just a necessity for human function, chefs and home cooks alike have found more ways to incorporate elements that are both visually appealing and carry health benefits.

Enter the growth of microgreens, which started in California in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming more mainstream over the past decade. You’ve likely heard or seen microgreens before, but what exactly are they and what is the fuss about them? We’re here to answer those questions and provide three recipes so you can cook with microgreens at home.

What are microgreens?

The word “micro” here says it all. Microgreens are young seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs. Unlike larger herbs and vegetables that take weeks or months to grow, microgreens can be harvested and eaten a week to 10 days after the cotyledon — a part of the embryo within the seed — leaves have developed.

These tiny versions only grow to a few inches and can come in 50 to 60 different varieties. Microgreens were originally limited to fancy dinner plates and boutique grocery stores due to their higher cost. 

After each harvest, growers need fresh soil, seed and a sterilized container or growing mat to repeat the growing process. These costs add up compared to mature herbs and vegetables that grow back after they’re initially cut or trimmed.

The use of microgreens has expanded now that they can be grown at home. You can add them to a salad, put them on a sandwich or top a steak or fish with them to provide a floral contrast.

Don’t confuse microgreens with sprouts. Sprouts are germinated in water, not soil, for one or two days to produce underdeveloped leaves. Microgreens grow in soil and sunlight and take at least a week to produce leaves.

Microgreens benefits

Despite their small stature, microgreens actually boast a more intense flavor than larger vegetables and herbs. One study even found they have more health benefits and can be up to 40 times more potent in phytochemicals.

The study, from 2012 by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, analyzed 25 microgreens and, on average, determined microgreens have four to six times more nutrients than their mature counterparts. For example, red cabbage microgreens had 40 times more vitamin E and six times more vitamin C, while cilantro microgreens had three times more beta-carotene.

Among the microgreens assessed, red cabbage had the highest concentration of vitamin C, cilantro had the highest concentration of carotenoids (a type of antioxidant found in brightly colored foods), garnet amaranth had the highest concentration of phylloquinone (a type of vitamin K) and green daikon radish had the highest concentrations of tocopherols (a type of vitamin E).

While microgreens are nutrient-dense, they aren’t typically viewed as a substitute for regular vegetables due to the cost and volume you’d have to eat.

How to grow microgreens

As expensive as some microgreens are in grocery stores, you can easily grow them in your own kitchen or outside in a garden. All you need is light, a container, soil and water. Of course, you also need seeds to plant. Many stores or internet marketplaces sell pre-packaged seed mixes that have similar flavor profiles.

Some of the more popular seeds include the following plants: 

  • Mustard greens
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Radish greens
  • Watercress
  • Peas
  • Cabbage
  • Basil

Depending on the seed size, some may require a pre-soak in water before planting. Make sure to read the directions. Microgreens such as kale and pea have larger seeds, while arugula, basil and mustard are medium seeds. Herbs such as oregano, thyme, mint, tarragon and sage all have small seeds.

Growing microgreens outdoors

Once you have your seeds picked out, it’s now time to plant! If you’re planting the microgreens in an outdoor garden, break up the existing soil and smooth it with a rake. 

Place the seeds ¼ -inch from each other and press gently into the soil with your hands. Cover with about ⅛ inch of soil. Take a spray bottle and mist the seeds so they’re damp, or until the soil feels like a sponge — not too wet but not too dry. Using a spray bottle will avoid dislodging the seeds.

Growing microgreens indoors

If you choose to plant your microgreens indoors, fill a small container with a few inches of organic potting mix. Plastic containers used for fruit, such as blueberries or strawberries, work well for this type of planting. Clamshell takeout containers will also work, as will aluminum pie trays — just be sure to poke some holes in the bottom so water can drain. Place a damp paper towel in first before the potting mix to prevent it from leaking out.

Using the same technique as you would for your outdoor microgreens, scatter the seeds ¼-inch apart and gently press them into the soil. Proceed to cover the seeds with ⅛ inch of potting mix. Mist the soil with enough water so it feels like a sponge. 

Some growers recommend placing plastic wrap over the microgreens to promote germination. Place the microgreens on a south-side windowsill or another area of your house where it gets at least four hours of sunlight a day.

When to harvest microgreens

Moisten the soil as necessary and avoid overwatering. The microgreens should be ready to harvest in 10 days to two weeks once the true leaves (not the seed leaves) begin to sprout. Take a scissor and snip the microgreens slightly above the soil. Unfortunately, the microgreens won’t regrow after an initial harvest. To grow more, you will need new seed and soil.

For an easier solution to growing microgreens, you can also buy microgreen kits that take most of the work out for you. These kits generally include seed packets, compostable grow trays, soil discs and tray covers. All you do is water each day until the microgreens reach their desired length. Many big box stores, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, now sell microgreen kits.

Microgreens recipes

Microgreens are best eaten raw to maximize their nutrients and freshness. Plus, they have a high water content that makes them less ideal to cook with over heat.

One note about preparing microgreens: Since they are so delicate, rinse them gently if there is soil on the leaves or avoid washing them altogether so you don’t bruise them. 

Homegrown microgreens salad

Salad is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing microgreen recipes. Use whichever greens you prefer, whether that’s hearty kale, peppery arugula or zesty mustard greens. Even better, use a combination of several types of microgreens.

(download recipe pdf)

Microgreens salad recipe

Zucchini pasta with microgreens and lemon

Pasta dishes are notorious for being heavy on the stomach. Microgreens can help liven them up, even if this recipe showcases zoodles instead of heavier, wheat-based pasta.

Again, choose whichever microgreens you can access, although the peppery notes of arugula microgreens work great here to help offset the richness of the cheese and the acidity from the lemon.

(download recipe pdf)

Zucchini pasta with microgreens recipe

Roasted halibut with microgreen puree

Pesto can brighten up a summer dish in no time, adding herby flavor to pasta or a piece of chicken or fish. In this recipe, the microgreens team up with fresh basil to help bring life to the roasted halibut. While this recipe calls the sauce a puree, you make it in a similar way you would a pesto. Pesto traditionally uses pine nuts, which tend to be expensive. This sauce has cashew butter instead, and features ginger, chile garlic sauce and rice vinegar for an Asian flare.

(download recipe pdf)

Halibut with microgreen puree recipe

Interested in more recipes or healthy eating habits? Find more tips on our INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

 

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