Our Spotlight series shines a light on the most important aspect of food and drink we love, the ingredients. We believe you are what eat, so knowing more about your ingredients is to better know yourself. Here we uncover the science of lemongrass and how you can use it at home or for your business.
What is lemongrass?
400 years before you smelled it in the citronella candles out back, lemongrass was grown, distilled, and exported west from the Philippines. This citrusy genus of the grass family is grown in several tropical parts of the world, with the most common culinary species, Cymbopogon citratus, concentrated in Southeast Asia. Its stems are cut and used fresh in soups and curries, dried for teas, or distilled for its aromatic essential oil.
Sometimes it seems like the most delicious plants are also the most versatile. Lemongrass is no exception. It’s commonly used in candles and sprays as a non-toxic mosquito repellant. Counter-intuitively, it’s also been used by beekeepers to lure swarms to new hives. Around the world, lemongrass has been used in folk medicine for a wide range of maladies. In Brazil, lemongrass tea was commonly used to treat anxiety. One scientific study supported this usage by showing that it affects GABA, a neurotransmitter system implicated in anxiety disorders. While we’ll have to wait for more research to definitively show how lemongrass can improve our health, we can start using it right away to improve our cooking and beverage game.
Why use lemongrass?
Lemon and other citrus fruits are commonly used in cooking, mixology, and tea blending because they brighten up a flavor profile. When we perceive that brightness we’re actually sensing two distinct phenomena. First, we experience the brightness of the fragrant and distinctive aromatic compounds common to citrus. Often these are as much about odors as they are flavors, and these compounds make up a large part of citrus essential oils. Second, we experience the brightness of acidity, in this case from citrus’s high citric acid content. So what do you do when you want to brighten up a drink or a dish but you don’t want to introduce the sourness of extra acidity? Enter Lemongrass.
Lemongrass gives you those bright, citrusy notes you love but won’t make your soup or dry cocktail overly tart. This is thanks to both its low acid content and the fact that many of the fragrant flavor compounds in lemons overlap with the flavor compounds in lemongrass. For example both lemon and lemongrass essential oils contain the chemicals myrcene, limonene, nerol, and neral. Also, a major component of lemongrass oil called citronellal smells like lemons, though it isn’t actually found in lemons.
How can you use lemongrass?
As mentioned above, there are several different forms in which lemongrass is used. Often the stalks are used fresh for cooking applications and dried for teas and drinks, but this is not a strict rule. Hot water infusion works particularly well for lemongrass due to its low bitterness and because heat helps extract more flavors found in its hydrophobic (“water-fearing”) natural oils. Another trick to get the most flavor out of the oils in lemongrass and other herbs is to use alcohol in your infusion. Ethyl alcohol, the alcohol found in liquor, wine, and beer, works great for this purpose because it dissolves both the hydrophobic oils and hydrophilic (“water-loving”) components found in the herb. Our food geek side is inspired by this video that takes advantage of both heat and alcohol to get the most from lemongrass. Here, they use water and gin in a hot infusion siphon on fresh lemongrass stalks to make an ultra-fancy hot cocktail:
Your creations don't need to be as elaborate at this one to enjoy the herb's bright flavors. Near-boiling water poured over dried lemongrass in a tea infuser works just as well for a cocktail or soup base.
How do we use lemongrass at Pearl Soda Company?
We use Lemongrass in two of our tea syrups, Blue Mountain Sunshine and Lime Twist. In Blue Mountain Sunshine for example, we wanted to impart a black tea and lemon flavor reminiscent of the half-tea, half-lemonade goodness of an Arnold Palmer. But we also wanted control over the acidity and tartness of the final beverage, so lemon juice wouldn’t work here. At this point most beverage companies would reach for an artificial lemon flavoring as the solution to this problem. Instead, we looked toward the wide palette of natural flavors found in herbs and settled on a mixture of lemongrass and lemon myrtle to provide the lemon flavor. Sometimes the best solution is a bit counterintuitive, and sometimes the best fruit flavor comes from a hot water infusion of high quality loose-leaf herbs.