Question: Are Brussels Sprouts Kosher?
Answer: Strictly speaking, yes. In their pure, raw state, all vegetables, fruits, and herbs are kosher. In recent years, however, several kosher certification organizations have taken issue with the humble Brussels sprout, and have informed kosher consumers that they are "not recommended."
Trouble in the Veggie Patch
So what's the problem with the little cabbages?
Vegetables may be kosher, but tolaim, bugs, are not. Historically, the onus has always been on the consumer to wash and inspect produce for worms and bugs before preparing or eating it. But in some communities, certain veggies have essentially become verboten, largely thanks to rabbinical rulings about the status of their inspectability.
According to many Orthodox kashrut authorities, Brussels sprouts are both likely to be infested with bugs, and difficult to check effectively. In fact, though there are published guides outlining how to check various vegetables, Brussels sprouts are one of the only veggies for which inspection instructions are explicitly omitted, even for those ambitious enough to try.
Fresh vs. Frozen
So, while fresh Brussels sprouts haven't been declared non-kosher, in many communities, they're effectively treated as though they are. Frozen Brussels sprouts, however, are another story.
A handful of kosher certifiers -- most notably Bodek -- specialize in produce inspection. The same kosher authorities that advise consumers to avoid fresh Brussels sprouts have given the okay to frozen sprouts with Bodek or similar certification.
Whole vs. Shredded
Similarly, while whole fresh Brussels Sprouts are considered problematic, some rabbinic authorities make an exception for shredded sprouts.
(I've even come across kosher-certified packaged Brussels Sprouts "slaw" at my local Trader Joes). Why the distinction between whole and shredded? As icky as it may sound, bug parts pose a less significant halachic concern than whole bugs.
Personal Practices Vary
What's interesting about the Brussels sprouts controversy is that individual practice about using fresh ones definitely varies, even in Orthodox circles. This is evidenced in part by their availability in strictly kosher markets. I regularly bought fresh Brussels sprouts at Gourmet Glatt, a kosher grocery in Cedarhurst, NY. Seven Mile Market in Baltimore, reportedly the country's largest kosher supermarket, also carries fresh Brussels sprouts. (Seven Mile's website does note that while it "distinguishes itself by carrying only kosher products…consumers must use their own discretion regarding the kashrus status of individual items.") A friend in Israel gets them in her CSA box.
While some rabbis stick to the blanket recommendation to eschew them, others will provide those who ask with inspection instructions. (Incidentally, while Bodek checks only a representative sample of produce, those who eat fresh typically report that they check every single sprout.) Because community practices vary, individuals should consult their own rabbis about the preferred method for checking Brussels sprouts.
But for reference, here are a few examples of how it's done:
- Personally, I remove several outer leaves, trim the bottoms, quarter the heads, rinse, and inspect the heads very closely (sometimes fanning the leaves if they're not super tight). I discard any heads with worm holes, bugs, black spots, or anything questionable.
- One friend reports that her mother-in-law "removes the first 2-3 outer layers, then soaks the Brussels sprouts in vinegar water for about 10 minutes, rinses them and checks the water for bugs. Sometimes she has to throw out an entire batch due to infestation, sometimes they come out clean."
- Sheridan Gayer, Assistant Director at the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University, says "I quarter them so that I can check and roast them that way. My mom halves them. Nearly every frum (devout) person I know eats them in their homes, or at least mine, and I think that it's on a mass scale that everyone's worried they won't be checked sufficiently. (If you only knew what cauliflower looked like straight from a field. I find Brussels sprouts so much less offensive.)"