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Mint: Kitchen Basics

Mint Spearmint1
Mint Spearmint
Spearmint

Mint can be used both in sweet and savory dishes.

Add mint to new potatoes or to a garlic and cream cheese dip. Mix mint with chocolate cakes or bake with raisins and currants in pastry.

Mints are an excellent addition to sauces, syrups, vinegars, and teas.

There are more than 2,000 varieties of mint—about two dozen are commonly used in cookery. All offer clean, sharp flavors that can be both cooling and warming.

Two mints most used in the kitchen are spearmint and peppermint.

Spearmint—also called garden mint–has a pleasantly mellow and refreshing sweet-sharp flavor that hints of lemon. Spearmint is most used by cooks to flavor savory dishes. It is milder than peppermint and can be used with many meat, fish, and vegetable dishes.

Peppermint is more intense than spearmint with a sharp-sweet-spicy flavor that offers menthol notes and a cool aftertaste. Peppermint is a bit too pungent for culinary use and is used mostly to flavor candies and desserts and to make hot or cold teas, cordials, and liqueurs or as a garnish for punch or fruit.

Spearmint—the name comes from “spiremint” referring to the tall spires of its blooms in late summer–was probably first used for cooking in England. There it is still used to flavor mint sauce and mint jelly and accompany lamb.

Spearmint is chopped and used in the Middle East to flavor salads such as tabbouleh. In Greece, dried spearmint is added to cheeses, and fresh spearmint is sprinkled over a cucumber and yogurt salad called tzatziki. Across much of western Asia, spearmint is used to flavor grilled lamb. Vietnamese spring rolls are wrapped in fresh spearmint. Spearmint is used in curries and chutneys in India.

You can use fresh spearmint to add a distinctive fruity flavor and aroma to lamb, veal, fish, soups, fruit, desserts, cottage or cream cheeses, sauces, salads, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, and potatoes. Finely chop fresh spearmint and add it to taste.

Dried spearmint—also finely chopped or crushed–can be used for cheese pastry fillings, yogurt dressings and sauces, grain- and bread-based salads, and in stuffings for vegetables such as eggplants, bell peppers, and tomatoes.

Curly mint is a type of spearmint that is often used for garnishes and decoration in place of the less fancy garden mint.

Peppermint is more pungent than spearmint. Menthol is a compound in peppermint oil that raises the threshold temperature at which the cold receptors in our mouth begin to work: it makes a warm mouth feel cool and cool drinks feel colder. That is why peppermint is used in candies and sweet liqueurs. Its cooling effect balances the sweetness of sugar. That makes peppermint a perfect complement for chocolate and ice cream.

Spearmint (the botanical name is Mentha spicata) has shiny, grayish-green leaves that are slightly ruffled, oval and serrated. Spearmint has a purplish flower. It is probably native to southern Europe but is now found around the world.

Spearmint is suited to all recipes calling for mint and is best shortly before flowering.

Peppermint (the botanical name is Mentha piperata) is a natural hybrid of water mint and spearmint. Peppermint has smooth, dark green, lance-shaped leaves with serrated edges and purplish green stems. It has small violet flowers that grow at the tips of branches.

The fragrance of peppermint is pronounced; it is the strongest of the mints. If you use peppermint to season foods, use a small amount.

Mint plants are herbaceous perennials that spread by underground stems called rhizomes. Once established they are resilient.

Choose. Mint is best young and fresh. It is most delicately flavored just before flowering.

Mint for drying should be cut before blooming. Hang mint in bunches to dry.

Store. Fresh mint will keep for several days in the refrigerator; place it in a damp paper towel in a perforated plastic bag. Dried mint leaves can be kept in an air-tight container in a dry, dark place for up to 2 years.

Serve. Use mint fresh or dried to flavor vegetables—cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini. Add mint sprigs to water when cooking carrots and peas or boiling potatoes. Toss boiled new potatoes with butter and chopped mint. Add fresh mint to cold and hot soups.

  • Add mint to salad dressings and mayonnaise. Mint is used to flavor marinade, mint jelly, mint sauce, and salsa. Sauce paloise is a béarnaise sauce made with mint instead of tarragon; use it good accompany grilled fish and chicken.
  • Mints are used to make Southeast-Asian dipping sauces, sambals, and curries.
  • In South America mint is combined with chili peppers, parsley, and oregano to flavor slow-cooked dishes.
  • Mint goes well with chicken, pork, veal, lamb, and game. Add mint to meat dishes, meat sauces, and stews. In Western Asia, mint is used to season grilled lamb kababs.
  • Use with mint to flavor fruit salads, fruit punches, and mint juleps. Use a sprig of fresh mint as a garnish for summer drinks.
  • Use mint with fruit salads, jellies, cookies, cakes, and quick breads. Use mint with chocolate in desserts.
  • To make mint tea, use a pinch of dried mint leaves per cup of boiling water and steep for 10 minutes.

Flavor partners. Mint has a flavor affinity for brandy, bulgur, chocolate, cucumber, dill, garlic, lamb, lemon, lime, olive oil, orange, parsley, ricotta, scallion, shallot, sugar, tea, tomato, and yogurt.

Mint facts and trivia. Mint combines well with basil, cardamom, cloves, cumin, dill, fenugreek, ginger, marjoram, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, sumac, and thyme.

Mints are native to Europe but have naturalized in many temperate regions including Asia, North American, Australia, and Japan. They have been in cultivation for more than 3,000 years.

The word mint comes from Greek mythology. The nymph Minthe was being seduced by the god of the underworld Hades when his queen Persephony found out and became jealous. Persephony turned Minthe into a scented herb.

The botanical name for spearmint is Mentha spicata. The botanical name for peppermint is Mentha piperita.

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