Why Do Sprouts Taste Bitter?

by Nick Marshall

Fresh bean sprouts should yield a sweet rather than bitter taste.

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The most common objection leveled at sprouts is that they have a bitter taste, a trait that is easily avoided and far from characteristic of the sprout community as a whole. Bursting with vitamins, minerals and fiber and typically high in protein, sprouts can be harvested from the early germination phase of beans, peas and even cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. When fresh, they can be consumed raw, and add a peppery crunch to a salad, or freshen up a protein-heavy sandwich. Freshness, sprout variety and hard-to-forget childhood preferences all influence bitterness.

The Worst Offenders

While most fresh sprouts have a barely perceptible bitterness and even give a light, sweet flavor, a few varieties carry stronger traces of bitterness than others. Fenugreek sprouts, in particular, have a take-it-or-leave-it bitterness which plays a significant role in Indian cooking through its aromatic properties, but which many people find overwhelming. A legume rather than a bean, Fenugreek is a more potent counterpart of another bitter sprout, the mung bean. Consumed fresh, mung beans are crunchy and sweet, but quickly take on a subtly bitter aftertaste within a few days, or if canned.

Poor Beginnings

Many people avoid sprouts because of a negative perception established during childhood. Crucially, though, the taste buds of the young are more receptive and more hostile to bitterness. As we age, our ability to deal with bitter flavors develops, and we even enjoy the experience, a phenomenon most commonly seen with beer consumption. One of the best ways to encourage children to tackle sprouts is by getting them to grow their own. Not only will it teach them about seed germination, but it will also tempt them to assume culinary ownership of the final product.

Simple Science

Most plants, herbs and vegetables contain phytonutrients which protect the flora against natural predators, but may also contribute to the bitter taste. While these chemicals have beneficial anti-carcinogenic properties, they are essentially toxins. The best known example is Brussels sprouts, which contain powerful but bitter alkaloids. The good news is that approximately 25 percent of people are unable to distinguish the bitter flavor of sprouts -- as well as cabbage, broccoli and dark beer -- due to a variation in a single gene which affects taste receptors on the tongue.

Surefire Solutions

The simple secret to dealing with the bitterness in Brussels sprouts is to completely remove the ends where the sprouts were joined to their stalk, along with any leaves attached to it. Slow roasting the sprouts with salt and oil will fully release their sweetness. For bean sprouts, you can try eating the sprout when the root shoot is still short, around the length of the soaked seed. In addition, be careful to discard any husks when rinsing, as these contribute to bitterness, particularly with mung beans.

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About the Author

Nick Marshall has written about food and travel for magazines in the United Kingdom, United States and Caribbean. After graduating from Bristol University in 1996, Marshall went on to win the Daily Telegraph Young Food and Drink Writer of the Year Award.