Microgreens, sprouts, or baby greens? Are they not the same? If you are confused, welcome to the club, you are not alone. So how are they different, and why does it matter?
The difference among sprout, microgreens and baby greens is the time at which they are harvested. Sprouts are harvested in less than a week, including roots. Microgreens are picked later than sprouts (1-2 weeks) and without roots. A baby green is a plant cut the latest among the three but still way before its full development.
Hence, you can harvest baby herbs, even one 1-2 inch tall for food purposes. Why should you do that, and why the time makes a difference?
The critical differences between sprouts, microgreens, and baby greens are how they are grown, and when they are harvested. Sprouts, microgreens, and baby greens all mark a stage of a plant’s growth for when they can be harvested and eaten.
The only common aspect among microgreens, sprout, and baby greens is that they all harvested before the plant is fully developed. Why? Read further.
Sprouts are a germinated seed, otherwise seen as the first growth of a plant. When a seed is planted, the initial growth, or sprout, is what is harvested in this case. Since a spout is the initial growth stage, they do not take very long to grow— less than a week for the vast majority of plants and herbs (after germination). The sprout includes the developing root system that is also eaten with the stem.
Sprouts are often grown in water only since they are eaten before they need soil to grow and stabilize. Indeed, as discussed in full germination guide, seeds have all the energy-packed within then to allow the plant to develop a few roots, steam, and the first pair of (fake) leaves. After that phase, they then need nutrients from soil and light (either from teh sun or grow light).
Because of the moist and warm environment in which sprouts are grown, they have somewhat of a reputation for being bacteria-ridden. In this case, I do recommend cooking any sprouts you’ve grown before eating them.
Microgreens are what a sprout becomes if left growing (in the right environment) at least one week more. Microgreens have one stem, a larger root system, and very small leaves. Unlike sprouts, the roots and bottom part of the stem of microgreens are not harvested. Instead, they are cut off the mid stem, so to heat clean, usually thin, hairless, pale, and soft stem with a few small leaves.
Microgreens are grown in a soil or seed starter (or coco coir) rather than in water. Some people use a kitchen towel or other inert material. I would avoid it as less hygienic (all the seed slime can attract insects). Because they have grown beyond the initial stage (sprout), they require a more stable structure and more “solid” structure than water and, if possible, a bit of nutrient. The microgreen roots must also be kept moist, but not wet, for ideal growth: they can’t be submerged.
Baby greens are “older” plants than sprout and microgreens but still far from being totally developed. Virtually the same as microgreens— just left to grow a little longer. If a microgreen is harvested within 2 weeks after germination while baby green roughly after 3 (but, be careful, every plant is different and there is not a strict rule, this is just generic guidance). Typically, a baby green is a small leafy plant, harvested before it is full-grown. They are famous for salads and other dishes where bulkier versions just don’t make the cut.
Both microgreens and sprouts are concentrated versions of full-grown vegetables. Since they are still in the stages of initial growth, the plant itself possesses vitamins and proteins to support its own growth, making them highly nutritious. In many cases, microgreens will have up to a 60:1 ratio of nutrients to a full-grown version of the same plant (italian study).
Be careful here. When I say 40 to 1, it means that 100g of microgreens can be more nutritious (depending on the vitamin or mineral you are considering) than 100g of the same type of plant when fully grown. However, do not forget that to have 100g of microgreens takes lots of seed compared to 100g of a fully grown plant.
It is debatable whether or not microgreens and sprouts are ‘healthier’ than one another. A sprout is more packed of the initial proteins from the seed (denser), since it has grown less than a microgreen, and not used all of the stored energy from the seed. However, a microgreen has more mass and from development than a sprout.
Both microgreens and sprouts have a reputation for risk. Sprouts carry bacteria from their seed, and the moist conditions of microgreens tend to breed mold in the root system. However, cutting microgreens well above the root (as is commonly done) and cooking sprouts before eating them are simple ways of avoiding these risks— which are mild, to begin with.
In the end, choosing between sprouts and microgreens is a matter of dietary and culinary preference. Sprouts tend to have a milder flavor and being crunchier, while microgreens are often very spicy in flavor and used to season dishes where sprouts tend to be a visual effect. Both are highly nutritious and popular additions to meals just for the sake of healthy eating.
Microgreens and sprout are gaining more and more popularity in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. They started as delicacies available only in top-notch restaurants to be, nowadays, available in supermarkets. However, their price is way higher, per weight, than their fully grown counterpart.
Why? One microgreen is just an early developed seed that is harvested way earlier than its fully grown counterpart. Hence, those initial resources (seed, soil, and light) are used just for a small amount (a few grams) of the plant. That’s why the farmer will charge you a few times the price you would pay for the same amount of the fully grown version of the plant.
Sprouts are really high in the protein, which makes them a great addition to wraps and salads. They also have a spicy, crunchy bite that, when paired with hummus, is quite delightful— I speak from experience.
If you prefer to cook your spouts to avoid possible bacteria, they make a great pairing with a fried or poached egg. I usually cook the egg and sprinkle the sprouts on top when still warm! For more ideas about how to cook with sprouts, read here.
When it comes to microgreens and baby greens, the key is versatility. Microgreens are very colorful and make a wonderful garnish for salads, steaks, and avocado toast (a personal favorite). You just prepare a regular toast, and you sprinkle them on top.
And as an ingredient, microgreens add a layer of freshness to several regular dishes: in omelets, atop seared scallops, or mixed with citrus in a summery salad.
Baby greens themselves can make up the bulk of a salad, and tend to have more flavor and nutrients than just regular greens. I don’t cook either one— cooked, they become mushy and limp, like overdone spinach. The flavor is best retained when served fresh.
Honestly, these greens are diverse, and always a healthy addition to any dish. America’s Test Kitchen has even made a video short on the flavor profiles of different microgreens and sprouts.
The differences between sprouts, microgreens, and baby greens, summarized.
- Sprouts are the youngest growth herbs.
- Microgreens and baby greens are grown in soil or seed starter and are older (a week or so) compared to sprouts
- Sprouts are eaten in their entirety, roots included. This is not the case typically of microgreens and baby greens;
- One is not healthier than the other, though they have different properties.
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