Mint is a colloquial term used to describe a diverse group of highly fragrant plants. Did you know the term “mint” technically refers an entire plant family (Lamiaceae) that contains over 200 genera and approximately 7000 species? There are tons of mints and a lot of herbs fall into this family. In this post, however, we will discuss the herbs that you probably think of first when you hear the word mint: spearmint, peppermint and other ‘minty’ hybrids.
Characterized by their square stems, spreading rhizomes and robust aromas, these mints are prolific hybridizers, cross-pollinating to produce diverse flavors and aromas. Flavor profiles even differ based on geographic origin, meaning the spearmint you try in your backyard will taste different from a spearmint grown in Lebanon, Morocco or England.
While we grow dozens of herbs within the mint family, here on the Flavor Farm we grow four varieties otherwise known as mint, including spearmint (Mentha spicata), peppermint (Mentha piperata), wintergreen mint and grapefruit mint.
MINT IN HISTORY
Spearmint is thought to have originated somewhere around Europe and West Asia. Peppermint is thought to be a hybrid cross between watermint and spearmint, although its geographic origins are still a mystery. In any case, it seems wherever the beloved mint plant has travelled throughout history it’s found a new home for itself, either cultivated or growing wild.
Dried peppermint leaves were found in the Egyptian pyramids and indeed the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text dating to 1550BCE, lists mint as a digestive aid used to soothe flatulence.
Ancient Greeks and Romans highly valued mints. They used it as a perfume by rubbing it on their arms, used it as a flavoring for sauces and infused in wines, used it in funerary rites, and even decorated their tables with it. The Roman poet Ovid described in his tale of Philemon and Baucis, two poor peasants placing mint underneath food that they served the disguised gods Zeus and Hermes, an act of hospitality that was greatly rewarded.
Even the name mint is thought to be derived from Greek mythology. Persephone, the first love of the God Pluto, became jealous when Pluto fell in love with the nymph Minthe. To spite her, she turned Minthe into a garden plant. Pluto was unable to reverse the transformation, but assured her that her sweet fragrance would waft amidst anyone who trod upon her.
John Gerard, a 16th century herbalist, wrote that the smell of spearmint “rejoiceth the heart of man.” 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper claimed it could treat 40 different ailments. Mints have been regarded for their medicinal properties for millennia, particularly for their ability to ease digestion and soothe the body and mind. Herbalists today and indeed some scientific research supports the age-old beliefs that mint can soothe the digestive system and ease anxiety.
MINT IN THE GARDEN
Mints are a wildly opportunistic herb in the garden, spreading rapidly by rhizomatous roots. Gardeners should plan accordingly and plant it in a location where it’s free to spread or else in a container or raised bed.
While it may be aggressive in the garden, it’s a beneficial plant to have around. Pollinators love the flowers and you’ll see numerous species of bees and flies visiting its upright white to purple flower stalks.
Its aroma is also a strong deterrent to certain insect pests, especially flea beetles that can wreak havoc on brassica crops like cabbages, cauliflower, kale and radishes. Tomatoes, roses, carrots and onions also benefit from being planted in proximity to mint for its ability to deter aphids, carrot root fly and onion flies, respectively.
MINT IN THE KITCHEN
If you’ve ever tasted a fresh mint leaf you know of its cooling effect on your tongue. This is caused by the monoterpenoid menthol, which is especially pronounced in peppermint where it can account for nearly 60% of the plants flavor compounds. Peppermint’s strong flavor is generally reserved for candies, desserts and beverages as it can be overpowering in culinary applications.
Spearmint on the other hand can be found in several culinary dishes from cuisines around the world. It’s cool, refreshing flavor is especially well-suited for salads (of all kinds!), cucumbers, creams, yogurt, and lamb.
Add it to potato salads, bean salads, fruit salads and green salads–like I said, all kinds! It’s a popular garnish for fresh green peas or pea soup. In Wales, mint is added to the pot when boiling cabbage. And in Germany, dried mint is used to top pea and bean purees.
Mint sauce or mint chutney is most often served with lamb. It’s thought that the mint can help one digest the tough fibers of the meat, but nevertheless they’re an absolutely divine flavor pairing.
You’ll find spearmint in West Asian and North African dishes like tabbouleh, vegetable salads, koftas, shakshuka, tangine, flatbreads, hummus, yogurt dips and more.
Spearmint is also very popular in beverages like a mint juleps and mojitos, as well as herbal teas and lemonades. Limonana is a popular Levantine mint-lemonade beverage. Mint tea is especially popular in North Africa and West Asia.
HOW TO COOK WITH MINT
To prepare mint leaves, rinse the stems under cool water and gently shake or pat dry. Strip the leaves from the square stems, discard the stems. Chop with a knife or roughly tear the leaves with your hands.
Mint leaves are most often used fresh as a garnish or mixed into dishes. Try tossing whole or torn leaves into fresh green salads. Chop them fine to garnish green peas or roasted carrots. Or add them as a star ingredient in salads like tabbouleh.
To make a fresh mint tea, coarsely chop or tear the leaves and place them into a tea ball or sachet (you can add them loose if you don’t mind straining them out later). Pour boiling water over the herbs and let steep for 5-8 minutes. Remove the herbs and serve hot or place in the fridge to cool for a summer iced tea. Sweeten to taste or try with a little lemon or cucumber! Note that it’s not recommended to serve mint tea to children under the age of 5 or to pregnant women.
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS
- Cheese (especially feta)
- Chocolate (especially dark)
- Salads, all kinds (bean, fruit, green, vegetable)
- Other herbs: basil, chives, cilantro, dill, fenugreek, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme