If you want to thank anyone for the Brussels sprout, thank the famed Flemish agro-physicist Dr. Hans Erdinwald, who in 1927 blasted a cabbage patch with his experimental gamma-ray shrinkage gun, zapping the large heads into the tiny baby cabbages we all know and love today.
I'm lying. But everything else from here on out is the truth, I swear. By the end of this article, you'll know what Brussels sprouts really are, and all the main ways to prep them for cooking.
What Are Brussels Sprouts?
While the history lesson I opened with is false, it points to an underlying truth: If you've ever noticed that Brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages, it's because, in a sense, they are. Both Brussels sprouts and cabbages are cultivars of the same plant species, Brassica oleracea, which has also been bred to produce broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, collards, and more. In each case, a different part of the plant became exaggerated by artificially selecting for specific traits.
Broccoli and cauliflower, for instance, have pronounced edible flower heads. Kohlrabi, meanwhile, has a large and rotund fleshy stalk that's crisp and juicy. Cabbage and Brussels sprouts, on the other hand, are vegetative buds—in the case of cabbage, it's a terminal bud that grows at the end of the stalk, while Brussels sprouts are lateral (or axillary) buds that grow all around and along the length of the stalk, almost as if someone glued a bunch of green ping pong balls to a walking stick.
Understanding the anatomy of a Brussels sprout bud can help you figure out how to cut it into various forms for cooking. At the center of each sprout is a solid core that anchors all the tightly nested leaves together; this core is actually an embryonic shoot hidden within the bud. The leaves themselves act as a protective covering of that embryonic shoot. The entirety of the Brussels sprout—the whole dang bud—is edible.
For All Preparations: How to Trim Brussels Sprouts Efficiently
No matter how you're going to cook your Brussels sprouts, you'll want to trim them first. At the base of each sprout is the spot where it was originally connected to the plant. Unless you've just cut the sprouts off the stalk yourself, this area will have become dry and browned during storage. Using a chef's or paring knife, trim off the dried-out portion.
Inspect the outer leaves of each sprout as well. If they look dried, bruised, insect-damaged, or otherwise undesirable, remove them until you reach the more appealing leaves underneath. Because the base of each leaf connects to the core of the sprout, it's easiest to trim away the stem end just above the attachment points for the leaves you want to remove and discard. They'll often fall away on their own after that, or, if not, will be plucked off much more easily.
Sprouts are small, which usually means you'll be working with quite a few of them. Try to be efficient as you prep them: Do your work in phases, first trimming all the stem ends at once, then moving on to plucking off the outer leaves and cutting up the sprouts after that. Otherwise you'll find yourself picking up and putting down your knife and the sprouts over and over again as you prep each sprout from start to finish before moving on to the next one—not a good idea if you want to be done in time for dinner.
How to Leave the Brussels Sprouts Whole: Consider Making an "X"
Perhaps you want your Brussels sprouts whole. This often makes sense when blanching them, since they'd become more water-logged if cut, as that exposes the spaces between the leaves.
If so, it can help to carve a shallow "X" into the base of the core of each sprout using a paring knife. The core is the most solid part of the sprout, which means it cooks more slowly than the rest of the vegetable. By scoring it, you'll help heat penetrate into the core a little faster, potentially speeding up the overall cooking time and avoiding overcooked outer leaves.
How to Cut the Brussels Sprouts in Halves or Quarters
One of the most common ways to cut a Brussels sprout is in half or quarters. By doing so, you reduce the size of the sprouts, speeding up cooking. You also create a flat surface in the process (one flat surface for halved sprouts; two for quarters), which improves contact with the hot pan or baking sheet, allowing you to brown them more effectively.
Halved sprouts should simply be cut in two even hemispheres lengthwise through the core. If you were to make the mistake of cutting the sprouts longitudinally, you'd end up with the core entirely within one half, and loose leaf tops falling apart on the other. By cutting through the core, you'll hold the halved or quartered sprouts together.
Cutting quarters is as simple as cutting each half in half again. It ain't rocket science, folks.
How to Finely Shave Brussels Sprouts
For some preparations, like this salt-wilted Brussels sprout salad I developed a couple years ago, shaving the sprouts can provide an enjoyable texture with maximum surface area. You can do this with a chef's knife by cutting each sprout in half first (following the above directions), and then cross-cutting each half latitudinally into thin slivers. This will disconnect the slivers from the core, especially up towards the top of each sprout, helping them to separate into individual shavings.
You can also use a mandoline or handheld slicer to make the shavings. Be very careful, though, because Brussels sprouts are too small and round to be held by most of the safety grips that come with the slicing devices. You'll likely have to hold each one with your fingers, stem-side up, and it doesn't take much to accidentally roll a sprout and shave your skin instead. (A cut-resistant glove may be a worthwhile investment if you plan to do lots of mandoline slicing with your hands.)
To Separate Each Sprout Into its Individual Leaves
This is a restaurant-y technique that you're unlikely to use at home, but for sake of completeness, I'll include it here. If you want to deconstruct each Brussels sprout into individual leaves, say to fry them as a crispy garnish or salad element, you'll use the same method as for trimming the damaged outer leaves described above, slicing off the bottom of the core to detach the next layer of leaves, but in this case you'll continue to slice deeper and deeper into the core, with each successive step helping to disconnect the next layer of leaves.
I recommend doing this with a paring knife, so that you'll be able to cut away at the core and pluck off leaves without having to repeatedly pick up and put down the sprout and a larger chef's knife to do the task.
As you drill down into the center of each sprout, you'll often find the leaves become more tightly packed and stubborn to remove, even after they've been disconnected from the core. They'll also become ridiculously small. How far you try to go to get to the true center before quitting and moving onto the next sprout is up to you.