When you’re shopping for herbs to add to your kitchen garden this season, look for the sweetest herb around-stevia. This tender perennial originated in South America, but it can be grown as an annual in areas that experience freezing winter weather.
Stevia grows just like other culinary herbs or vegetables. Select a sunny garden spot or plant in containers (12-inch minimum) and raised beds. Just make sure the soil is well drained to prevent overly wet roots.
The plants can grow to over 12 inches tall and can get bushy if you keep the tips pinched to encourage branching. A bushier plant not only produces more leaves, but it makes for a sturdier plant that can stand up to windy weather.
Use fresh stevia leaves as a calorie-free sweetener or steep into a sweet herbal tea. For the best flavor, snip leaves from plants before they start to flower.
To make a sweet tea, steep ¼ cup chopped fresh leaves in 1 cup hot water. The stevia won’t dissolve, so strain before enjoying hot or adding ice for an especially refreshing beverage.
Another way to use the fresh leaves is to make an extract that you can use to sweeten other beverages, fruit salads or desserts. Cover 1 cup fresh leaves with warm water and let steep for several hours or overnight. Strain the liquid and keep refrigerated. Use as a liquid sweetener for teas and other summertime drinks.
Stevia leaves can also be dried individually on a screen or the entire plant can be pulled up and hung upside down for a few days to dry. Remove the leaves from the stem and store them in a clean, airtight jar.
The dried leaves have about a quarter of the sweetness found in the powdered stevia purchased at grocery and health food stores. For measuring, 1/8 teaspoon of dried stevia equals the sweetness of about 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
Do you have any recipe ideas for using a home-grown sweetener like stevia? Please share them here.