What incredible tasting herb needs to be on your to bucket list? Lemon balm. Also known as Melissa officinalis, this wild herb grows widespread across North America and is easy to identify from it's refreshing lemon aroma.
There's only one problem, I find it's hard to come across wild, compared to the ubiquitous bergamot and elusive peppermints in the areas I hunt in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
I know of only one place where it grows, and it's pretty modest. The good news is that it can be purchased and planted, and since it's in the mint family, it'll grow like a weed, and is a great bee attractor for your garden.
With a flavor like concentrated lemonade, it begs to be used for refreshing things like drinks and salads in the summer. It's flavor is powerful, but confusing since it's delicate too, and it can be frustrating to make something with it, only to end up not being able to taste it in the finished dish.
It's often used for drinks and syrups, which work, but don't expect it to stand up to strong flavors, like basil or mint can, something plain like vodka and soda would be good.
I've come up with a trick for capturing the flavor by lightly grinding the leaves with sugar, which absorbs the perfume and stretches it, from there the sugar can be frozen and used for sorbets or drink syrups-the method is at the end of this post.
How to use Lemon Balm
Most of the time I just tear lemon balm by hand and put it on top of things, that's how I like it the best. It makes an incredible syrup though.
- I like to use it fresh, and in large pieces, torn by hand. If you chop it all up it'll taste like grass clippings, or will start to shortly (unless it's blended with sugar like in the following recipe, which captures the aroma).
- It's flavor degrades quickly. You have to add it at the last minute, the same goes with adding it to an ingredient that's cooked, like pasta.
Lemon Balm vs Mint
Mint and lemon balm are cousins in the Lamiaceae family, so they'll both have square stems. The two are easy to tell apart by their aromas. Lemon balm smells like lemon, and mint smells like mint.
Lemon Balm Syrup
One of the easiest ways to preserve the flavor of lemon balm is to make syrup. Add a splash of this to lemonade or other drinks for a fantastic, refreshing flavor. Follow the recipe for lemon balm sugar below.
Here's two of my favorite lemon balm recipes.
Cucumber Salad With Lemon Balm And Comfrey Flowers
- 1 small mixing bowl
- 1 large English cucumber
- Virgin sunflower oil extra virgin olive oil can be substituted
- Kosher salt and pepper to taste, plus ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper for the pickled shallots
- Comfrey flowers to garnish (optional)
- Lemon balm to taste (about 5-6 leaves depending on size)
- 1 large shallot
- 1 tablespoon honey
- ⅛ cup vinegar
- ¼ cup water
- First pickle the shallot. Bring the honey, water, ¼ teaspoon of pepper and ½ teaspoon of salt to a boil in a small pot, then turn off the heat. Peel the shallot, then trim both of the ends. Slice the shallot into ⅛ in thick rings, then pour the still hot vinegar-honey mixture over the sliced shallots. Chill the shallots and reserve.
- Meanwhile, slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, then, using a spoon, scrape out the seeds. Slice the cucumber on a mandoline or with a sharp knife into ¼ inch slices.
- To serve, arrange the slices of cucumber on a chilled salad plate. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then with olive oil.
- Scatter the pickled shallots haphazardly over the cucumber, then tear the lemon balm into ½ inch pieces and place them on top of the cucumbers. Garnish lastly with a few comfrey flowers if using, and serve immediately.
Lemon Balm Syrup
- 1 food processor or vitamix blender
- 1 cup packed lemon balm leaves
- 4 cups white sugar chilled
- 2 cups water
- Tear the lemon balm leaves by hand to avoid bruising with a knife. Place the torn lemon balm leaves in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to break them up. The leaves should stay bright green, be very careful not to over process or the color, and aroma won't be as strong.
- Freeze the lemon balm sugar in dated, labeled containers until ready to use.
Lemon Balm Syrup
- To make a syrup for flavoring things like drinks, combine the lemon balm sugar and water and stir until the sugar is dissolved, let it sit over night to infuse in the fridge, then strain to remove the leaf particles, label, date, and refrigerate until needed.