Brussels sprouts are one of the many vegetables in the brassica family, along with kale, turnips, collard greens, broccoli, arugula, bok choy, and more. Brussels sprouts are cabbage-like sprouts on tall stalks that thrive in temperate weather. The United States produces 32,000 tons of them each year, with most production in California, Washington, and New York states. It’s estimated that up to 85% of brussels sprouts grown in the US are for frozen food. The largest global producing country is the Netherlands, where they harvest 90,000 tons each year.
History and Facts
Thousands of brassica family vegetables are varieties that have originated from the same Wild Mustards plant. It’s estimated that brassicas evolved around 24 million years ago in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, then moved northwards through the Fertile Crescent and hybridized into several different species. The first recorded mention of brussels sprouts traces them to the 13th century in Brussels, Belgium where they were popularized. This is why the correct term is “brussels sprouts” even if you’re talking about a singular sprout.
Brussels sprouts, and all brassicas, are not native to North America. It’s thought that French colonists brought them to the United States in Louisiana in the 1800s. Commercial production of sprouts began in the early 1900s in the United States, making them a relatively “new” veggie to the continent.
How they are grown & harvested
Brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages that grow on a thick, tall stalk about 2-3 feet in height. There may be 15-20 sprouts on one stalk, which are cut off to be eaten. Most of the time, when you buy them, they have been cut off the stalk already. Sometimes, you can buy them at farmers’ markets still attached to their giant stalk. Brussels sprouts are cold-hardy and get a bit sweeter after the first frost. This is why they are available in the late fall, around Thanksgiving time. They come in many sizes and colors, while green is the most common, beautiful purple varieties are becoming more popular too. In New York State, they are first planted by seed in greenhouses in the spring, then transplanted out to fields around June. They grow all season long and are generally harvested from September to November around the time of the first frost.
What Gives Them a Distinct Smell
Vegetables in the brassica family have a distinct smell because they contain sulfur compounds. If you have a memory of your parents boiling brussels sprouts to a mush that were horrible to eat, it’s because the longer cruciferous vegetables like brussels sprouts cook, the more sulfurous, smelly, and bitter they become. So, to tame their funky taste and smell, reduce their cooking time by using brief high-heat. The author of the cookbook “Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables” suggests roasting or sauteeing them and pairing them with other strong flavors. There are many preparations that even skeptics will love listed below.
Why Buy Local Sprouts?
The freshest ones are the sweetest and least sulfurous. Try to eat them within a few days of buying them from a local farmer. Brussels sprouts are also really good for you. They are high in vitamin C, K, fiber, and iron. If you buy them in season and still on the stalk, you can place the entire stalk in the refrigerator for a few days. If you don’t have the refrigerator space for a 2-foot stalk, you can cut the sprouts off and store them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag or container.
A Few Ways to Prepare, That Even Skeptics Will Enjoy
Fried brussels sprouts from Sara Gore
Polenta bowls with roasted brussels sprouts and mushrooms from Andrea Bemis
Roasted brussels sprouts with shallots from SnapED NY
Raw & caramelized brussels sprouts with salty-sweet pepitas from Murielle Banackissa (pictured, photo by Julia Garland)
Where to Buy Local
Wherever local food and products are sold near you! Find farmers’ markets, local food retail locations, and farmstands selling brussels sprouts.
Photo at top: Dave Walczak, operations manager of Eden Valley Growers co-op in Eden, New York, checks on brussels sprouts growing on 2,000 acres of co-op members’ farmland. Provided by Cornell Cooperative Extension
How do you like to prepare them? Comment below and let us know.