It’s spring – time for garden tours, tea parties and other garden events. Once again, we’re dreaming up recipes to feature at Mother Nature’s Backyard events. The current abundance of flavorful mint leaves got us thinking about making mint extracts. These extracts can be used to flavor a wide array of California Gourmet treats, from cookies and candies to beverages and baked goods.
The Mint family (Lamiaceae) contains a number of aromatic plants whose flavors can be used for cooking. For the most part, leaves are the principal plant part used. The sages (Salvia species) and Desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi) are best used fresh or dried as flavoring for savory condiments as well as soups, stews, cooked vegetables and breads.
Plants in other Mint genera can be used in both sweet and savory dishes including teas, sauces, syrups, flavored vinegars, vegetable dishes and baked goods. They are welcome additions to traditional recipes that use mint (fresh or dried) or mint extracts. This group includes Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathaceae), the Clinopodium (Satureja) species, the Lepechinias, the Mentha, Monardella and Pycnanthemum species, and Wooly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum).
While fresh leaves are handy in season, many native mints have ‘peak’ and ‘off’ seasons. To use these flavors in the off season, you’ll need to preserve them in some way. In addition, fresh or dried leaves – even well chopped or ground – don’t incorporate well into some recipes, like candies and cookies. So if you want to make a batch of Yerba Buena fudge, you’ll need to extract the flavors into a useable liquid.
The three main ways to preserve native mint flavors are: 1) to dry the leaves; 2) to make a water-based extract using the leaves; 3) to make an alcohol-based extract. Each method is simple and straight-forward, requiring few ingredients and no exotic equipment. We outline the basics of each method below.
|Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) in local garden|
Collecting and preparing leaves for preservation
One of the advantages of using plants from your garden is you know exactly what species you’re collecting and that the leaves are pesticide-free. First, be sure that the leaves you’re using are edible. We have a list of California native tea plants that’s a good start: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/south-bay-native-plants-teas-beverages. The FDA Poisonous Plant Database is a searchable internet resource with information on a wide range of toxic plants: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/plantox/textResults.cfm. If uncertain, consult this excellent resource before you ingest any new plant part.
Collect leaves that are mature, but not diseased or becoming senescent. In Southern California, the best season to collect many types of mint leaves is mid- to late spring. In areas with more spring/summer rain, the optimal time may be late spring to mid-summer. Pick only healthy leaves, collected in the late morning for optimal flavor.
Rinse the leaves well in tap water to remove dust, etc. Pat the leaves dry and they are ready for drying. If preparing a water or alcohol extract, shake off excess water, then the chop the leaves into small pieces. Once cut, mound the leaves on the cutting board and hit the mound with a mallet or meat tenderizer (or the flat of a heavy knife) to bruise the leaves. The leaves are then ready to make either a water or alcohol extract.
|Drying leaves for tea or dried herbs|
Preservation by drying
One of the easiest ways to preserve any type of mint leaf is to dry it. The leaves can be dried in a food dehydrator, in a warm oven, or in a warm dry place. If using an oven or air drying, we like to put a piece of clean window screen (purchased at your local hardware store) on top of a cooling rack. The leaves are spread evenly on the screen. The rack is then placed in a jellyroll pan (or cookie sheet with sides) to catch any crumbs.
Oven drying requires a low temperature (140° F maximum; 60° C) to retain the flavors. We like to heat the oven to 140, turn off the heat, then let the leaves dry in the cooling oven. You may need to repeat the process several times to get the leaves fully dry.
Once the leaves are completely dry and crumbly, pack them into a clean, glass jar with an air-tight lid. Label and date, then store in your spice cupboard. Dried native leaf spices retain their potency for about a year (long enough to get you through to the next season). To use in soups and stews, add whole dried leaves to the pot; remove leaves before serving. To use as a ground spice or for tea, grind leaves in a spice grinder or mortar & pestle. Grinding spices just prior to use gives the best flavor.
|Wild mint extracted using water extraction method|
Preserving as a water extract
Another easy way to extract Mint flavors is by making a water extraction – essentially a strong herbal tea – from the leaves. This extract can be used in any recipe that calls for water as a liquid, including cookies, candies, and other baked goods. The advantage of this method is that it’s quick and easy. You can make the extract from either fresh or dried leaves. The flavors are wonderful and fresh, particularly when you use fresh leaves. The disadvantage is that the extract must be refrigerated, and it loses its potency within a month or so.
The preparation is simple. Take prepared leaves that have been chopped and/or bruised to release their flavor. Place leaves in a non-metal bowl (glass or pyrex) or glass measuring cup. For all but the most delicate of the mints (see below), heat water almost to the boil. Pour hot water over prepared leaves; let sit until cooled to room temperature. For a good flavor, use plenty of leaves – just cover the leaves with water.
Some Mints have very delicate flavors that do not stand up well to hot water. The Clinopodiums (Saturejas) and a few of the Monardellas come to mind. For these, prepare the leaves as above, then cover with water at room temperature. Let the mixture sit for 1-2 hours to extract the flavor. Strain, then use in your favorite recipe.
|Hummingbird sage extract using alcohol|
Preserving as an alcohol extract
Making alcohol extracts is simplicity itself. All that’s required are the leaves, some vodka (mid-price-range types will do) and time. And while the extracts are not as concentrated as commercial cooking extracts (commercial ones are distilled to concentrate the flavors) they work wonderfully in the recipes we’ve used them in.
Place the cut/bruised leaves into an airtight glass jar. Pour vodka over the leaves to cover. Label the jar with contents and date. Tightly cap and place in a shady place (in a cupboard or pantry is good). Rotate the jar every day for the first week or so. Then let the jar sit for another week or two to allow the extraction to complete.
Strain out the leaf material using a fine-mesh sieve, strainer or coffee filter. At this point you can bottle and use the extract, but it will be mild-flavored. To make a more concentrated extract, prepare another batch of leaves, place in a clean jar, pour the extract over the new leaves, and proceed as before. You can repeat the concentrating process several times to get the strength you like. This is an old trick from back when commercial extracts weren’t available; at one time, everyone made their own ‘kitchen extracts’ for common flavoring agents.
After the last straining, pour the completed extract into a clean glass bottle (dark-colored ones are good), cap and clearly label with contents and date. Store along with your other flavored extracts. Alcohol-based extracts retain their potency for several years.
Use your extract in your favorite recipes. Because home extracts are milder, you may need to increase the amount used (up to twice what the recipe calls for; you’ll just have to taste and adjust as needed). You may also want to use a few drops of vanilla extract, along with your home extract, to make the flavors ‘pop’.
|'Hint of Hummingbird Sage' cookies|
We hope we’ve inspired you to try the ‘Mints’ in your garden in your favorite recipes. If you have wild mints, Monardellas, Clinopodia, Hummingbird sage or Fragrant pitchersage (April, 2016 Plant of the Month) in your garden, you might want to brew up a batch or two of extract using your favorite flavors. And be sure to look for our recipe for ‘Hint of Hummingbird Sage’ cookies, which uses our home extract, later this month (April, 2016).
We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : firstname.lastname@example.org