(This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 edition of Edible Front Range magazine)
By Jesse Eastman
Even though they have been around for years, chances are good you’ve only recently heard of micro greens. These tasty treats are just what their name implies – tiny little leaves. Used for years in high-end restaurants, micro greens are making waves with a broader audience thanks in part to the many different “grow-your-own” movements and the popularity of “locavore” cuisine. With winter coming soon, finding a way to get garden fresh greens to the table presents a challenge for the health conscious cook, or anyone who likes the taste and feel of spring. Micro greens might just be the solution.
What are micro greens?
The term “Micro greens” applies to a wide variety of leafy plants and herbs that are harvested at a tender young age. According to Kathy Hatfield of Raspberry Hill Farm, micro greens are harvested either as soon as the cotyledon (baby) leaves emerge, or once the first full set of true leaves emerge. A few popular varieties include:
- Arugula (Nutty/peppery flavor; not as intense as mature arugula)
- Beets (Very subtle beet flavor; gorgeous red stem)
- China Rose Radish (Sharp radish flavor; rosy pink stems)
- Cilantro (Intense cilantro flavor)
- Italian Basil (Same basil taste you love, but more subtle)
- Kale (Much sweeter in its micro form than its mature counterpart)
- Kohlrabi (Similar to the flavor of broccoli stems)
- Komatsuna (Mustard flavor; milder than standard mustard micro greens)
- Lemon Basil (Zesty citrus flavor)
- Mizuna (Spicy, but much milder than mustard micro greens)
- Mustard (Gives a spicy bite!)
- Red Amaranth (Mild flavor; bright red color)
- Red Choi (Mild flavor; deep burgundy color)
Micro greens can be distinguished from sprouts in several ways. first, sprouts typically do not have leaves. Second, sprouts consist of the entire juvenile plant, including roots, whereas micro greens consist of only the leafy tops. Third, sprouts are grown in water or in wet “sprouting” bags, with no light necessary. Micro greens, on the other hand, are grown in soil under bright light. Finally, sprouts are almost always very pale, almost white in color. Micro greens have a rich variety of colors depending on the type of plant being grown.
Are micro greens nutritious?
The answer is resoundingly “Yes!” According to a study done by researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park (Assessment of Vitamin and Carotenoid Concentrations of Emerging Food Products: Edible Microgreens), micro greens are a packed with nutrients like ascorbic acid and beta- carotene when compared to the nutrient content of mature leaves of the same varieties. Despite this promising data, many people believe more research is needed. The nutrient content of any plant can vary dramatically depending on the light it is exposed to, the soil it’s grown in, ambient temperature, and many other factors that were not covered in the University of Maryland Study. Nonetheless, these little leaves are no nutritional lightweights.
Are micro greens easy to cultivate?
Micro greens only take an average of 10-14 days to grow which makes them very simple and easy to grow, even in your own home. Because they are harvested at such a young age, they do not develop the deep extensive root systems that would necessitate deep planting containers. At Raspberry Hill Farms, seeds are planted directly into standard nursery flats (11” x 22”) filled with about an inch potting soil, although any container will do. Hatfield describes the process as being identical to starting seeds indoors before the growing season. The only difference, she says, is that these plants are harvested while they are still tiny, instead of being allowed to grow to maturity. As with any recently germinated plants, consistent and even moisture must be maintained; a moisture dome can be helpful in this regard. Grow micro greens in an area with lots of light – in areas with inadequate light, micro greens will get leggy and not develop the nice strong colors for which they are so popular. Once the young plants reach proper size for harvest, use scissors or a sharp knife to cut the plants off at the soil surface. The soil, with roots and all can be composted and reused.
You’ve harvested, now what?
Optimally, micro greens should be harvested immediately before use. Wash them in a salad spinner. If your micro greens are ready for harvest but you’re not ready to eat them just yet, store them in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer without washing them. If you wash them before storage, they will get slimy very quickly. Most varieties of micro greens will keep for 5-7 days if properly stored. As with any greens, it is best to consume micro greens as shortly after harvest as possible, with minimal, if any, storage to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
There are many different culinary uses for micro greens. The most common use for micro greens is as a garnish in virtually any dish. They are frequently used to top salads, adding crisp sharp flavors and bright colors. They can also be used in sandwiches or wraps for a surprising bit of freshness any time of year. Micro greens are finding their way into sushi, where their flavors interact very well with wasabi and soy sauce. They also turn up in soups, added at the last minute so they don’t become soggy in the hot broth.
More and more, it seems that consumers want food that is locally grown, organic, and nutritious, and with the ever increasing popularity of cooking shows on television, awareness of the visual presentation of food is at an all-time high. The positive psychological effect of harvesting fresh greens through the winter months is significant. With micro greens riding such a groundswell of popularity, there’s really only one question that remains: What are you waiting for?
Special thanks to Kathy Hatfield from Raspberry Hill Farm for all of her advice and wisdom.
Raspberry Hill Farm is a family owned northern Colorado farm specializing in specialty cut flowers.