The older I get, the more I like Brussels sprouts. But like, why do Brussels sprouts taste better now?
Not because I stopped watching 1990s cartoons and their propaganda campaign against vegetables, but because Brussels sprouts have been freaking crossbred to improve their flavor — seriously.
The flavorful transformation Brussels sprouts have endured began in the late 1960s, when farmers started using seeds that increased their yield, creating a sort of quantity over quality situation. “In the late 1960s, our industry switched over to mechanized harvesting, which required a plant that would mature fairly evenly over the entire stem,” says Brussels sprouts farmer Steve Bontadelli. “The Sakata seed company developed the first plants that would mature evenly, and they were beautiful and green with lots of production, but they were horribly bitter, and we turned off an entire generation.”
A few decades later, in the 1990s, Dutch researchers and seed producers worked together to identify the chemical compounds that made Brussels sprouts taste less than delicious. They then searched their archives for older seed variations that had lower levels of these compounds, and they began the process of crossbreeding them with more modern, high-yielding ones. Over time, it worked.
“Breeders subsequently worked on developing much milder tasting sprouts,” Bontadelli says. “This, combined with Brussels being featured on many cooking shows seven or eight years ago, caused a major shift in attitude — thankfully for the grower — and created a dramatic increase in year-round demand.”
Chefs and home cooks alike also changed how they approach cooking Brussels sprouts, which contributed to their improved flavor and growing popularity as well. “Boiling them into little mushballs contributed to the bitterness and the foul sulphur smell in the kitchen,” Bontadelli explains. “That was just the way a lot of vegetables were cooked at the time, as that was the heyday of the frozen food industry and the preferred way of preparing them in England, where there were a lot of Brussels produced.”
Nowadays, we know that roasting Brussels sprouts results in a much more appetizing end product. “The easiest way to prepare them is to trim, halve, drizzle with olive oil, put them on a baking pan and roast them in the oven,” Bontadelli says. “Turn them about halfway through to get the outer leaves slightly charred. I usually cook a few strips of bacon, remove them when crispy, and then saute the prepared sprouts in the bacon grease for 12 to 14 minutes, adding some chopped garlic when they’re almost tender enough for a fork to pierce them. A few minutes later, I pour a splash of balsamic vinegar, swirl and serve immediately with a generous sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese. Delicious!”
So, uh, can a guy get some crossbred broccoli, too?