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Mint is a herb which belongs to the Labiatae family Genus Mentha . Although there are hundreds of varieties of mint, M. spicata (spearmint) also known as garden or common mint is the most associated with using fresh or dried in cooking. It has an aromatic and fresh bouquet and is widely used in many European based and north African cuisines. Other types sometimes used for culinary purposes include Peppermint M. piperita, Pennyroyal M. pulegium, Orange Mint M. piperita citrata, Applemint M. sauveolens and Chocolate Mint M. x piperita 'Chocolate'


Origin and History of Mint


Most mints are native to Europe and Asia, although there are some which are indigenous to the America’s and Australia. Many think that the colonists introduced mint to the USA however there is evidence that Native American Indians were using a form of mint well before their arrival.

Mint has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for thousands of years and is even mentioned in the Bible. The name Mentha is derived from the Greek nymph Minthe. Greek legend tells how Hades (also known as Pluto) who was God of the underworld, took a shine to Minthe who soon became the unfortunate object of his wife’s anger. The jealous Persephone attacked Minthe turned her into a lowly plant and was in the process of trampling her to death when the broken hearted Hades took pity on her turned her into an aromatic herb so that when she was trodden upon, her sweet aroma would fill the air.

This theme runs through many civilizations: Peppermint oil has been distilled by the Japanese for centuries, ancient Hebrews scattered the floors of their synagogues with Mint and Ancient Romans are said to have rubbed their tables with the leaves before their guests arrived. It is also generally believed that the Romans are responsible for the creation of mint sauce.

Medicinally, the various mints have been used worldwide for centuries as a cure or relief for numerous ailments from flatulence and digestive complaints to fevers.


Cultivation and Processing Mint


The mint plant is a perennial i.e. they keep coming back every year. Because mints hybridize both in the wild and under cultivation, it’s best to buy plants or seed from a reputable source. Propagation can also be achieved by division or by cuttings taken in the spring.

Generally they like semi-shaded positions and moist though not waterlogged soil. Peppermint and Spearmint can grow to up to 60cm/24 inches high but more usually 30cm/12 inches. Be warned that they are very invasive plants and spread like wildfire by means of underground stems so it is always wise to grow them within a container which can be buried in the earth.
For detailed instructions on how to grow mint , visit our Growing Herbs and Vegetables section.

Many recipes, in particular desserts and baked goods, call for Mint extract or oil. These are clear liquids which is made from fresh peppermint or spearmint leaves. Commercially, they are obtained via a steam distillation process where first the oil is extracted from the leaves and then it’s further processed by dissolving in an alcohol base to create the extract.

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Dried mint is ….well what it says – fresh mint leaves which have been dried, although there are two types; Freeze-dried and air-dried and their use differs slightly. You can read more about that below in the “Mint in cooking” section. Commercially freeze dried mint is first flash frozen then placed in a vacuum chamber where 98% of the moisture is removed by evaporation. It is then sealed in oxygen and moisture proof packaging. Dried herbs can be naturally sun dried or processed through dehydrators.


Buying and Storing Mint


As mentioned above, Mint is available fresh, dried, as an extract and in the form of an oil. Most forms can usually be found in supermarkets

When buying fresh mint, choose leaves that are rigid and evenly coloured with no sign of wilting. Place the mint, stems down, in a small container of water, place a plastic bag over the leaves and refrigerate for up to a week, changing the water every couple of days.

Store dried mint in airtight containers in a cool dark place. If you want to dry your home-grown mint, you can do so either by air-drying or oven drying but you should be aware that the high moisture content in the leaves makes them prime candidates for mould. When air drying, only hand small bunches, upside-down in a dark airy place for about 2 weeks. To oven dry – place individual leaves in a single layer on a baking tray sandwiched between kitchen paper then and place in a very cool oven overnight. When fully dried they should be very crisp and crumbly.

You can also freeze mint at home. Wash and dry individual leaves, place in a single layer on a tray, cover with clingfilm and freeze until solid. Transfer to small plastic bags or containers and return to the freezer where they’ll keep for several months.


Cooking with Mint


Peppermint is has a much stronger flavour than spearmint in all its forms, so if you are planning on using it as a substitute in a recipe you should bear this in mind. Both have a remarkable fresh taste are highly aromatic, especially when cut or crushed.  Spearmint (garden/common) is the first choice for savoury dishes and is the type you are most likely to come across in supermarkets in many countries. Because Peppermint has a stronger flavour its best suited to  sweet recipes.

Oil of Peppermint or Spearmint can generally be substituted for extract, but only use ¼ to ½ of the amount of extract stated.

Dried mint is an reasonable standby however, as mentioned above, because of the difference in processing, air-dried mint is best used in recipes which call for a longer cooking time such as stews, soups and meat and poultry dishes whereas freeze-dried mint is most suitable for dishes which require little or no cooking such as omelettes, sauces and dressings. As with most dried herbs, you should use less than the fresh counterpart. 1 tablespoon fresh mint = 1 teaspoon dried mint .

There are many cuisines the world over which use one type or another of mint;  India in the classic Raita and in chutneys; England with her good old mint sauce and jelly (even if it was the Romans who introduced it);  North Africa/Middle East where its often used with rice and other grains;  Greece and the Balkans often in stuffed vine leaves; Vietnam in her national dish, Pho;  South America in their wonderful salsas  .... just to name a few.

The flavour of mint goes well with many savoury ingredients, especially vegetables - minted peas and minted new potatoes are firm favourites here in England - as well as lamb, poultry and fish dishes. On the sweet side, the taste goes particularly well with chocolate.





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