Lavender in the Kitchen

From sweet dishes to savory meals, this versatile herb is a kitchen essential.

| June/July 2004

Lavender recipes:

If you’re familiar with lavender’s intoxicating fragrance and colorful flowers, but haven’t experienced its appealing taste, a treat is awaiting. From cookies, breads and ice cream to savory dishes, sauces and the famous herbes de Provence seasoning, a hint of lavender enlivens recipes in delightful ways. Many trendy restaurants have begun to capitalize on its sweet mingling of floral, fresh pine and rosemary with citrus notes to accentuate sweet and savory dishes. But don’t let the restaurants have all the fun. Try one of these relatively simple recipes for yourself.

Essential oils that infuse lavender with fragrance also contribute to its flavor, with characteristics varying among species and cultivars. French lavender (Lavandula dentata) tends to be bolder, somewhat medicinal and more pungent in flavor; Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) is more astringent and perceptibly more camphorlike; the lavandins (L. ¥intermedia) are sharper and slightly camphorous, though some varieties, such as ‘Provence’, are mild-flavored.

Though any species will suffice in a pinch (given the right recipe and amount), English lavender (L. angustifolia) possesses the best culinary flavor. The complexity of flavor will vary slightly depending on the potency and composition of its essential oils. A few of the better culinary varieties of English lavender include ‘Hidcote’, ‘Sharon Roberts’, ‘Loddon Blue’ and the pink-flowering ‘Melissa’.

While both flowers and leaves can be used in cooking, the essential oils are most concentrated in the buds and flowers, which means they have the best flavor. A word of caution: The perfumy flavor of lavender can overwhelm foods when too much is added. The key to cooking with lavender is to use a light hand — just a hint to impart a subtle nuance. You can use flowers and buds whole (be sure they have not been chemically treated). You also can make lavender sugar by layering flowers and sugar in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and letting it sit for several weeks. A faster method is to grind the buds with the sugar to form a fine powder.

Lavender is delightful in all kinds of baked products and desserts — from cookies, muffins and breads to cakes and ice cream. Steep it in sauces, marinades and dressings, or create flavored oils, vinegars and butters. Its flavor complements most fruit, nuts and many vegetables (especially potatoes), and can be used to season fish, poultry and other meats. Vary lavender’s appeal by mixing it with other aromatic herbs like rosemary, fennel, oregano or thyme to bring a new dimension to spice rubs and savory dishes. Better yet, why not experiment and create your own lavender delights?

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