My husband has planted lavender in various places around our house and I love it. I had the wonderful blessing of visiting the Provence region of southern France during lavender season. It was an all-sensory experience as I stood in a lavender farm. I saw the beautiful flowers; I smelled the incredible aroma and I heard the bees buzzing all around. I even ate a meal where every course included lavender in it. Lavender is not only a beautiful plant but can also be a culinary herb. Since it is not the most usual of ingredients, I decided that this would be an interesting Cooking Tip.
Lavender is a member of the mint family. According to the U.S. Lavender Growers Association, there are over 45 different species and more than 450 varieties. All of them are beautiful but not all of them have a place in your kitchen. The name lavender comes from the Latin verb lavare “to wash” and throughout history and today, it has been commonly used in soaps. Since you do not want that “soapy” flavor in your dishes, it is important to know which lavender to use.
In the kitchen, you want to make sure you are using “culinary” lavender. The use of the word culinary refers both to the cultivar of the lavender as well as the processing. Any plant of the genus Lavandula is known as lavender but not all varieties are used in the culinary world. The most typical is Lavandula angustifolia, (English lavender) which has less oil than the more aromatic type used in perfumes or soaps. It has a sweeter and more palatable flavor for culinary uses. Those plants known as Lavendula x-intermedia are edible but since its flavor is more pungent and resinous, it can make your dish bitter.
In terms of processing, lavender is harvested, the buds are separated from the stems and then cleaned by sifting through screens to remove leaves and any remaining bits of stem. Culinary lavender is sifted multiple times to ensure all you are left with is the buds. Also, much of the commercially available lavender is grown for potpourri and the flowers are sprayed with chemicals that taste bitter and could be toxic.
The entire plant is technically edible including the flowers, stems and leaves but normally only the buds are used in cooking. The other parts are more pungent and bitter and the leaves are tough.
Unless you are growing your own lavender, you will need to purchase it. It can be purchased fresh, dried, as an extract or even a paste. If trying to substitute dried for fresh, you need to decrease the amount just as with other herbs. Only use ⅓ to ½ as much dried as fresh.
Here is some general advice on using lavender in the kitchen.
- Choose the right lavender as discussed above.
- If you are just beginning to cook with lavender, you might want to start with tested recipes. That way, you can get used to how to use it before experimenting on your own.
- Using lavender in your dishes is not as easy as just opening the bottle and tossing some in. Because lavender is very floral, you need to use it carefully so it doesn’t overpower your dish. If a dish with lavender tastes like soap, you either used the wrong cultivar or you used too much. This is definitely one of those ingredients where the adage “less is more” is so true.
- Pair with the right flavors.
- Lavender does very well with tart and fruity ingredients like citrus juice and zest.
- It also pairs nicely with creamy ingredients such as ice cream and custards.
- In savory dishes, the strong flavor of lavender is great with other strong flavors such as lamb and venison.
There are various ways in which you can add lavender to your sweet and savory dishes.
- Whole flowers – biting into the flowers is not a pleasant experience. There are only a couple of ways in which the whole flower buds are used.
- First is as a garnish.
- Second is when the buds are put in a container of sugar and set aside in an air-tight container. Over the course of a week, the natural oils permeate the sugar crystals to make Lavender Sugar.
- Ground – otherwise, the buds should be ground up before using. You may want to grind the buds with part of the sugar you will be using in your dish or baked item.
- The flowers can be put into hot water to make an infusion. After straining the flowers out, the liquid can be used.
- Infusing the buds into a simple syrup is something that is often done to use in beverages.
- You can also infuse the buds into hot dairy such as milk or cream. One of my favorite things to make that uses this method is Chocolate Lavender Truffles.
- Herb/Spice blends – the most typical blend is Herbes de Provence. This is most literally defined as “herbs like they use in the region of Provence in France.” Therefore, there are many different recipes for this blend. In France, there might not be any lavender at all but in the US, lavender is typically used along with other herbs such as marjoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano. This blend is often used to season meats.
- Lavender butter – add 7 Tbsp finely chopped buds to ½# softened butter.
- Lavender honey – add 4 tsp chopped blossoms to 1 cup warm honey. Add 1 Tbsp lemon/lime juice. Steep for an hour, reheat and strain.
Lastly, I want to comment on lavender essential oil. This is a product that is made for aromatherapy and/or in body creams and soaps. Most sources warn that it can be unsafe for ingestion. My recommendation is to stay with the flowers, the extract and/or the paste for culinary purposes.
If you are making a recipe that calls for lavender and you do not have any, what could you substitute? As I have said numerous times in these Cooking Tips, do not substitute if you have never made the recipe before. If you are intent on substituting, here are some possibilities.
- Rosemary – as lavender is a member of the mint family, it is closely related to rosemary. Both are fragrant and have assertive flavors. Only use half as much rosemary as lavender and it is best used in savory dishes.
- Herbes de Provence – if you get a blend that contains lavender, you could use this herb blend. If so, use the same amount.
- Ras el hanout – this is another herb and spice blend that can include lavender flowers.
- – this is a liqueur made with a curaçao base (a liqueur flavored with the dried peel of the bitter orange laraha, a citrus fruit grown on the Dutch island of Curaçao), vanilla, and flower petals. The flowers are primarily roses and violets but some versions use lavender. This ingredient would be best if you are making a dessert.
- Lemon thyme – this is also part of the mint family and its lemony component might take the place of lavender’s floral notes.
- Mint – this can be used in both sweet/savory applications. One caveat is that whereas lavender can withstand long cooking times, mint cannot. If using mint, add close to end of cooking process.
Lavender season is a beautiful and aromatic season. It can also be a season of lavender use in the kitchen. I mentioned my favorite is my Chocolate Lavender Truffles. What is yours?