Guide to Brussels Sprouts

This vegetable has a reputation for bitterness, but when properly cooked, sprouts offer complex flavor with a subtle crunch.

SEASON: Although readily available almost year-round, the peak season is from September to mid-February.

CHOOSING: The best-tasting, most tender sprouts are only 1 to 11⁄2 inches in diameter—the smaller the head, the sweeter the taste. They should be compact, firm, and green, with minimal nicks and torn or yellowing leaves. Try to choose sprouts of similar size so they’ll cook evenly.

STORING: Remove any damaged or loose outer leaves, and store in a produce bag in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Although they’ll last a couple of weeks, try to cook them as soon as possible; their flavor will start to become unpleasantly strong after three or four days.

GROWING: A cool-weather vegetable, Brussels sprouts require three months to mature. It’s best to plant in summer for harvest in the fall. They can also be planted in early spring, about a month before the last frost, for harvest in early summer. If summers are very hot where you live, Brussels sprouts can be a difficult vegetable to grow.

Because they take so long to mature, buy transplants to save time. Set them in a sunny, well-prepared bed, spacing them about 2 feet apart. Feed them at planting with a dilute solution of liquid fertilizer and again about three weeks later.

These grow unlike any of your cool-season crops, spiraling up the stalk. If you intend to harvest all at once, pinch the tip from the stalk one to two weeks in advance so the heads will mature at the same time. Otherwise, choose 1- to 2-inch sprouts individually as they mature from the bottom up, removing accompanying leaves as you go up the stem.

HISTORY: Legend has it that Brussels sprouts were first grown in Europe, but whether or not it was in the city of Brussels remains unknown. The first official description of them, however, did appear in Belgium in the late 16th century. They made their way to England in the mid-19th century and there gained great popularity. Today, the British remain the world's top consumers of Brussels sprouts. Not only do we not consume as many, Americans grow six or seven times fewer crops―which are cultivated mostly in California and New York.

APPEARANCE: They're members of the cabbage family―and they look like it, too. Most sprouts range from one to one-and-a-half inches in diameter.

EATING: First, wash each Brussels sprout and pat dry, removing any loose leaves. Then, trim the stem ends and make a shallow "X" in the sprouts; this allows the heat to penetrate more effectively and cook the veggies more evenly. (If your nose is particularly sensitive to the scent of cooking sprouts, throw a stalk of celery or a couple of pieces of red bell pepper into the cooking water―but remember to remove before serving.) Brussels sprouts should be cooked only for about 10 minutes until tender but still slightly crisp. Their color should remain intense; olive-drab sprouts have been overcooked. To check doneness, pierce the stem end with a fork―it should penetrate easily.

BENEFITS: Like other cruciferous vegetables, Brussels sprouts are full of phytonutrients (natural plant compounds), which may help protect against cancer. They're also a good source of:

Vitamins A and C, which help fight against heart disease, cancer, and cataracts (one half cup of sprouts provides more than 80% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C)

Potassium, which helps lower blood pressure and maybe even cholesterol

Folate, which is necessary for normal tissue growth and may protect against cancer, heart disease, and birth defects

Iron, necessary for maintaining red blood cell count

Fiber, which aids in digestion and helps lower cholesterol