Not your grandmother’s Brussels sprouts

A couple of weeks ago Jenny rhapsodized over Brussels sprouts, and the image that accompanied that article received more clicks than almost anything else we have published this year. The most popular Thanksgiving recipe “by far” on NYT Cooking’s website is Mark Bittman’s Roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic (pictured below). My neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter requests the tiny brassicas for almost every meal. Brussels sprouts are riding a huge wave of popularity these days, but not too long ago they had a poor reputation: most people found them overly bitter and shunned the small cabbages. Cooks might assume it was because cooking methods changed, but the real story is more complicated than that. The Brussels sprouts we love today are actually not the same vegetable as the reviled ones of yesteryear.

The change occurred during the 1990s, when a Dutch scientist named Hans van Doorn, who worked at a seed and chemical company, sussed out which chemical compounds in spruitjes (the Dutch word for Brussels sprouts) made them bitter. Once the offending compound was discovered, growers began to dig through their seed archives to find heirloom varieties that produced less of it. They cross-bred these older cultivars with modern, higher-yielding types to create the variety we love today.

The process took several years, so it has only been in the last 15 years or so since the new, less odiferous Brussels sprouts have become widely available. Today you will find the mini-cabbages on restaurant menus worldwide, often flash-fried or roasted at a high heat. The old-fashioned method of boiling them until they are tender contributes to the release of the stinky smell, so their newly found popularity is part selective breeding and part modern cooking methods. Will Brussels sprouts make an appearance on your holiday table?

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  • LeilaD  on  November 26, 2020

    Getting ready to start the Brussels sprouts with honey and pine nuts!

  • Lsblackburn1  on  November 26, 2020

    Absolutely! I have a recipe from Nigella Feast that I make every year.

  • FJT  on  November 27, 2020

    I’ve always love Brussel sprouts … just not ones that were boiled to death! So many vegetables used to get that treatment when I was a child. So, sprouts for school dinner used to be left on the side of the plate, but sprouts at home were wonderful.

  • Foodycat  on  November 27, 2020

    My grandmother was of the “put them on to boil at the beginning of Advent” school and I always hated them. Now I love them! Finely shredded in salad, lightly steamed and finished in butter, garlic and lemon, deep fried with XO bread crumbs – they are all good!

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