Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Thanks in no small part to Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy, it has become impossible for us to stroll through a farmers market without thinking about which fruits and vegetables belong to which plant family. One look at lemon balm leaves—whether coarse and hairy in texture, arrowhead or heart-shaped, or scallop-edged—and you'd likely guess that the plant belongs to the same family as mint and shiso. And you'd be right. One more clever deduction, this time from its name, and you'll figure out that this herb is lemon-scented. Some compare its lemony flavor and aroma to that of furniture polish (and, in fact, the leaves can be used to polish wood), but you're probably better off putting lemon balm to use in other ways.
The Health Benefits of Lemon Balm
This lemon-scented herb, which is native to Europe, has long been used as a culinary, medical, and cosmetic herb. It’s widely considered to be calming, reducing stress and anxiety, promoting better sleep, and easing indigestion and bloating, according to Mount Sinai. Health studies have shown that lemon balm can increase individuals' sense of well-being, happiness, and alertness.
Lemon balm has been used medicinally for a long time to treat a wide variety of ailments, most commonly stress and anxiety. Research has somewhat confirmed its calming effect, but you'll probably pick up on it anecdotally, and we can almost guarantee it will be a beneficial addition to your garden. It's often planted to attract bees and releases a pleasant lemony scent as you brush up against it. You can even crush the leaves and rub them on your skin as a mosquito deterrent. But that's not all: Lemon balm will become a go-to herb in your kitchen, too.
How to Use Lemon Balm
As a general rule of thumb, treat lemon balm as you would any other herb. It works especially well in place of mint, offering bright, fragrant notes. Add whole lemon balm leaves to green salads, or chiffonade the leaves and scatter them over a fruit salad for added zesty flavor. Lemon balm also pairs beautifully with poultry—try adding sliced leaves to chicken salad, fish dishes, and even vegetable dishes to serve on the side.
Just like mint or basil, you can also candy lemon balm leaves and use the finished product as a sparkling garnish over ice cream or tarts. It also works wonders in recipes that call for lemon verbena (like these cookies)—but note that lemon balm isn't as intense, so adjust the amounts as necessary.
For a thirst-quenching sip, infuse water with lemon balm leaves, which you can drink as is or use to create granita, a light, icy dessert. After all, nothing is fancier than flavored water. When it comes time for happy hour, "lemon balm makes an absolutely delicious liqueur," says Greenstuff. Similarly, infuse heavy cream with lemon balm leaves to make panna cotta or crème brûlée. Ahead, we're sharing some recipes that use lemon balm in four refreshing ways.
Our Favorite Lemon Balm Recipes
Okra seed "couscous" is a neat, nutty ingredient that shines in this loosely Mediterranean-inspired salad. Thin slices of cucumbers are tossed with fresh lemon balm, sumac powder, and feta cheese, plus the okra, for a light summer side.
There's not enough good things we can say about these crispy, golden brown vegetarian bites. A handful of fresh herbs such as lemon balm perks up the robust vegetarian mixture made with cannellini beans, bread crumbs, and Parmesan cheese.
Perk up a classic Arnold Palmer with a power-packed blend of fresh lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon verbena leaves, and lemon zest. Combine freshly brewed black tea with the lemon-herb mixture for a cooling sip on a hot day. Beyond this beverage, use lemon balm to make fancy ice cubes or a simple syrup to sweeten any drink.
Two cups of mixed bright herbs (think: lemon balm, dill, basil, and mint) are a lovely addition to this juicy summer salad. The simplest dressing made from yogurt and maple syrup introduces sweet, creamy notes that coats each element of this dish.
What are your favorite ways to use lemon balm? Tell us in the comments!