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Don’t Confuse Your Shoots And Sprouts—Here's How They're Different

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Seasonal produce makes us giddy, so we’ve partnered with Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts to share the scoop on some of our favorite unique fruits and vegetables.

It must have taken a lot of patience, gently correcting me with “of course, the sunflower shoots,” every time I requested “sunflower sprouts” from one of my favorite stalls at the farmers market. Around my third visit I finally got it and the distinction stuck for good—along with my fondness for shoots.

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Photo by James Ransom

For anyone else still grappling with this difference, it's time to stem any confusion: Sprouts are the first stage of germination. You'll see a little sprout coming out of the seed (or bean, grain, or nut) and maybe some root hairs—the entire thing is eaten. On the other hand, seeds that have sprouted and allowed to grow a little more (on soil or another growing medium) are shoots. They are tiny plants that are then clipped near the base of their stems.

If you’re thinking that “shoots” sound awfully similar to “microgreens,” you’re right. Microgreens is a marketing term, so there’s no set definition or standard: Generally, microgreens are a little bit farther along than sprouts, but not so far along as to be considered “baby” greens. But, the term microgreens is sometimes applied to any greens younger than the baby stage, meaning that it’s okay to call sprouts microgreens.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

All different types of things can be grown as sprouts—from vegetables (both leafy greens and ones we typically grow to eat other parts of, like root vegetables) to herbs. Just like their parent plants, different kinds of shoots can look quite different from one another, even in their tiny state. We picked up a “spicy mix” of shoots (1, above) as well as sunflower shoots (2, above) from the farmers market. The mix of shoots includes daikon (1a, above); pea (1b, above)—which, despite the name of the mix, aren't actually spicy; and mustard greens (1c, above).

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Where to Find Them

Your best bet for sourcing shoots is to visit your local farmers market, where you might find all different types: kale, other types of radish, buckwheat, beet greens, broccoli, basil, and more. We’ve also seen shoots at specialty grocery stores, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a tray of shoots and a pair of scissors to cut your own.

But if you can’t find them, you can always grow them! The Yellow House walks you through growing your own pea shoots—follow the same process for other types of shoots.

Photo by James Ransom

How to Store Them

You’ll want to use more delicate shoots quickly, within a day or two. Sturdier shoots, like sunflower, will last longer, but leave them too long and they'll start to go limp and lose their delicate crunch. Wrap them in a paper towel and place them in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator; when you’re ready to use your shoots, gently wash them.

How to Use Them

Shoots are great mixed in with other salad greens, and although they’re best handled with a light touch, some of them, like pea shoots, are sturdy enough to stand up to a quick sauté or stir-fry. They make a snappy addition to sandwiches and spring rolls, and we especially like them as a garnish for egg dishes—though they’re a welcome garnish for almost anything, really.

Here are 7 other ideas to get you eating more shoots:

Ramped Up Crostini with Ricotta and Pea Shoots

Ramped Up Crostini with Ricotta and Pea Shoots by TasteFood

Yum Yai Salad

Yum Yai Salad by Ali Slagle

Quinoa, Fava Bean, and Chard Veggie Burgers

Quinoa, Fava Bean, and Chard Veggie Burgers by Carolyn Cope

Pea Shoot and Baby Arugula Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

Pea Shoot and Baby Arugula Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigr... by Merrill Stubbs

Smoky Tempeh and Hummus Sandwiches

Smoky Tempeh and Hummus Sandwiches by Gena Hamshaw

Vernal Greens Pasta with Seared Scallops

Vernal Greens Pasta with Seared Scallops by hardlikearmour

Garlicky Stir-Fried Pea Shoots (Da Dou Miao)

Garlicky Stir-Fried Pea Shoots (Da Dou Miao) by Betty | le jus d'orange

Tell us: What are your favorite ways to use shoots?

Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts was founded in 1977 to advance health-supportive culinary education—and more than 2,500 chefs from over 45 countries have graduated since. Find out more about NGI's Chef’s Training Program, recreational classes, and more here.

Tags: down and dirty, special diets, shoots, pea shoots, sunflower shoots, daikon shoots, mustard greens shoots