Artificial sweeteners scare me. All those unpronounceable chemicals of indeterminate origin don’t exactly sound like delicious ingredients, let alone wholesome food stuffs. With so much controversy surrounding the myriad of mysterious white powders on the market, I do my best to avoid them altogether… But one new contender in this same aisle has everyone buzzing; Stevia.
A different beast altogether, stevia is a natural dried herb, not a man-made sugar derivative. However, what you find in the packets isn’t just pure herbs, but a mixture of stevia leaf, some sort of desiccant to prevent clumping, and often a de-bittering agent, as it tends to have a sharp taste when used in larger quantities. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but it got me thinking- What would real, whole, fresh stevia taste like? Could a simple herb truly taste sweet? I just had to see for myself.
Luck would have it that while picking up seedlings at a local nursery, a few little pots labeled “stevia” sat innocently nestled between the spearmint and tarragon, almost hidden in plain sight. After a moment of disbelief, I snatched up a set of the twiggy green sprouts, and hurried home to transplant them into the garden. After waiting for what seemed like forever until there were enough leaves to beginning trimming and tasting, it was love at the very first tisane.
Since then, I’ve gotten many questions about growing your own stevia, and while I still have a lot to learn, it’s proven to be a very useful ingredient for simple sweetening needs. Less powerful than dried stevia, you would need to use about 4 – 5 times as much of the whole, finely chopped leaves as powder in a recipe calling for stevia. As for regular sugar, about 6 large leaves is about as sweet as 1/2 cup, granulated. However, I’ve only used my stevia to sweeten drinks, including teas, sodas, and smoothies so far- In general, I would not recommend trying to bake with it. Such large amounts of sugar can’t simply be removed without throwing off the whole ratio in the recipe, and at the very least, nothing will brown properly. Instead, think of it more as a flavoring, like mint or thyme, rather than a sugar substitute.
Apparently, the degree of sweetness is also dependent on the climate and soil that you grow your stevia in, so its flavor could vary greatly depending on where you live. The best advice I can give is to play around with it, taste it, and discover your own preference for this fascinating herb.
What has your experience been with stevia- Is anyone else out there growing your own? What’s your favorite way to use it?