Crushing a fresh sprig of lavender releases a scent that is familiar and intense, and an instant tonic. Traditionally the defining ingredient in soaps, essential oils, and sachets to keep linen fresh, the perfumed lavender herb is enjoying a culinary moment when it comes to baking and cooking.
But its use as an edible herb is a surprisingly recent development given its ancient pedigree as a perfume and medicine and its provenance (the Mediterranean). For that reason, guidance can be helpful. Deployed in moderation and with an appreciation for ingredient-pairing, using lavender in food can add an exciting new dimension to your meals, from cocktails right through to aromatic desserts.
Along with some more familiar woody edible herbs in the Lamiaceae family, like oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, and thyme, lavender is native to the scrubby edges of the Mediterranean. You might suddenly become aware of its penetrating scent as you crush it underfoot while climbing a dry and rocky slope in the Atlas Mountains, throughout Spain, or the south of France. The wild, tenacious plants, adapted to parched summers and wet winters, look very different from the lush perennials that grow in gardens or in the iconic fields where they are cultivated for the essential oil market.
Like those herbal staples, lavender has cosmetic and medicinal properties that endeared it to Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans (the latter of which sprinkled it in their baths). They valued the herb well before its phytochemistry could be analysed: Lavender contains linalol, a terpene alcohol that is antimicrobial.
This means that in therapeutic doses it can be medicinal, and in concentrated form (like essential oils), toxic if ingested. When it comes to culinary purposes, relatively small amounts of leaves or flowers are called for and are considered safe, as well as conducive to happy hums around the dinner table.
What part of it can be eaten?
Think rosemary: We use its potent, needle-like leaves, while its gorgeous flowers are a seasonal bonus. Lavender leaves are edible and very strongly flavoured. If using the lavender flowers for cooking or baking, strip them from the spike, or use them whole. Dried lavender retains its aroma and flavour exceptionally well (like any woody herb) and lasts for many months in an airtight jar. If you substitute fresh lavender for dried, increase the quantity called for in a recipe by three (one teaspoon dried herb equals about three teaspoons fresh).
You can find dried lavender for culinary use available online. It’s also possible to find fresh herbs at farmers’ markets, but you’ll want to ask if it has been grown organically. (It’s not hard to grow your own lavender but it needs full sun and likes to dry out between waterings.) Bear in mind that plants at nurseries may have been treated with herbicides so don’t consume them at once, when transplanting to your own garden space.
How to use it in cooking
As a jumping-off point for thinking of how to use it with food (or drink), rosemary—again—is a helpful guide. It is piercingly pungent and works in recipes that are either strongly savoury (roast leg of lamb comes to mind) or sweet and fruity (infused in dessert wine with oranges, for instance). And then there are rosemary cocktails. In each case, substitute lavender for the rosemary, and ask your taste buds and nose what they think. We predict that they will be very happy.
But we also have a slew of lavender recipes to help you on your way. Lavender salt is a versatile pantry basic—a rub for grilled meats as well as a delicious seasoning for roasted root vegetables. Its counterpart is, of course, is lavender sugar! Then there’s lavender honey, which is made by infusing a neutral honey with fresh or dried lavender. Use the perfumed honey in sauces and pan juices, stir it into a soothing cup of hot black tea, shake it up with gin and lemon juice (citrus with lavender is generally a great combination), drizzle it over a platter of fruit for dessert, flavour a decadent three-cheese cake with it, and definitely make our lavender honey ice cream.
Use lavender leaves in the honey-vinaigrette for a vibrant beet salad. And shake Thanksgiving up forever with lavender masala seasoning for the big bird.
How to use lavender in baking
Blueberry and lavender tarts are a summer treat, and lavender icing makes for the prettiest topping whenever you’re baking party cupcakes. Grapes and lavender also belong together, so try making a luscious grape and lavender sorbet where the musk of Concord grapes is balanced by the floral quality of the herb, and bake the celebration-worthy grape and lavender tart.
This story first appeared on www.marthastewart.com.
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Jonathan Lovekin)
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