Cooking Brussels Sprouts You'll Love

The secret to loving Brussels sprouts: learn all about growing and cooking Brussels sprouts perfectly so you can enjoy them all winter long.

| February/March 2008

You can learn a lot about a country based on how its people talk about food and love. In Belgium, for example, it’s not uncommon to refer to a loved one as “mon petit chou,” which translates as “my little cabbage” or “my Brussels sprout.” This may come as a shock to those of you who have never uttered the words “love” and “Brussels sprouts” in the same breath.

Brussels sprouts are one of those “love ’em or leave ’em” vegetables that elicit strong opinions. I considered myself among the “leave ’ems” until I moved to Belgium in the 1990s. It was there that I discovered both Brussels sprouts and love. I was dating a young Belgian woman who would later become my wife. We often spent weekends in the countryside with her family. As a gardenless city dweller, I was happy to get out in the country and scratch at the ground, even if it wasn’t my own ground. And as a somewhat homesick expatriate, I felt comforted by Mom’s cooking, even if she wasn’t my mom. It was Ginette, now affectionately known as “Mami” to my three Belgo-American sons, who introduced me to Brussels sprouts cultivation and cookery.

Sweet, Nutty and Yummy

A star of the fall and winter garden, cold-hardy Brussels sprouts can be enjoyed all winter long; the colder the weather, the better they taste. The trick to cooking Brussels sprouts is not overcooking them. Most people who say they don’t like Brussels sprouts have eaten industrially grown, bitter versions with all the flavor and color cooked out of them. A properly cooked sprout should be fork-tender but not mushy, and should retain most of its green color.

A classic Belgian way of cooking Brussels sprouts is steamed eight to 10 minutes and then lightly sautéed in butter with some chopped shallots or onions. Add some salt and pepper, and if you’re feeling extravagant, a drizzle of cream. That simple recipe was what converted me from a Brussels sprouts leaver into a lover 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve discovered other ways of cooking Brussels sprouts that have reinforced the love. Roasting Brussels sprouts, for example, brings out their sweetness and a pleasant nutty flavor. (See recipe below.) They can also be added to stir-fries. 

Timing is Everything

You don’t need to move to Brussels or have a Belgian mother-in-law to enjoy great homegrown Brussels sprouts, although it helps to have something approximating Belgium’s cool, moist growing season. Brussels sprouts love cool weather, and in many regions can easily be picked fresh for winter holidays. Most of the Brussels sprouts grown commercially in the United States originate from northern California’s fog belt and other misty, ocean-cooled areas such as Long Island, N.Y. I grow mine with good results on the southern coast of Maine (Zone 6). But don’t worry if you don’t have the optimal conditions. As long as your climate allows you to grow broccoli or cabbage, you can grow satisfying Brussels sprouts.

Members of the cabbage family are not terribly fussy when it comes to soil types. Average garden soil with a pH from 6.0 to 6.8 will work fine. Brussels sprouts thrive in a moist environment. If Mother Nature can’t provide those conditions for you in the form of mist, drizzle and fog, then you can help ensure that your sprouts are getting a regular and even supply of moisture through their roots. Start by working a generous amount of water-trapping compost into your soil before planting your seeds or setting out transplants.

Susan Francois
1/9/2013 4:59:35 PM

planting them this year in the mountains od SW NC, when is the best time to start them? I've also grown them in SW Fla with great success

Matthew Goehring
7/10/2010 5:22:04 AM

Going to try these for the first time here in western PA

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