A Guide To Lemongrass
Everything you need to know about cooking with this versatile tropical herb.
What is lemongrass?
Lemongrass is a herb that comes from the stalk of the lemongrass plant (Cymbopogon citrus). Cymbopogon comes from the Greek for “boat” and “beard,” and refers to the boat-shaped base of lemongrass’s spiky leaves. But “bearded boat” doesn’t quite have the same tropical ring to it as lemongrass. It’s closely related to citronella, which you’ll often find in candles and oils to keep those pesky insects away from your patio on a summer’s evening. It looks a little bit like fat spring onions with a bulbous bottom, but has a woody stem and tough, long outer green leaves. It doesn’t taste like a spring onion either. One misconception about lemongrass is that it’s sour. Well, It’s not. This delightful, zingy herb is actually used for its aroma, which is citrussy, lemony and, unsurprisingly, grassy. It adds a bright, citrusy and floral-herbal fragrance to anything it touches, from curries and soups to salads and grilled meat, so if you’re looking to elevate your plate, make sure you have some on standby in the fridge or freezer. Lemongrass is the tallest of the lemon herbs – it can reach six to ten feet in height in its favoured, tropical habitat. And it’s also arguably one of the tastiest.
Where does lemongrass come from?
Lemongrass is native to Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and Burma, but it’s grown in many countries around the world. It thrives in tropical climates and is a common ingredient in Asian cooking, which has been used for centuries to add its unique, zingy flavour to meat and seafood dishes, vegetables and marinades. In Thai and other Southeast Asian cooking, lemongrass is known as Takrai or Sereh. India produces more lemongrass than any other country in the world – responsible for 80% of the world’s lemongrass crop. Bangladesh, China and Guatemala also produce considerable quantities. Lemongrass has a big family, with over 55 different species grown across the globe – but not all of them are edible. The three most common varieties are citratus, also known as West Indian lemongrass, and the one you’ll most likely find in your local supermarket, flexuosus or East Indian lemongrass, and nardus. Nardus is what we know as citronella and is commonly used in insect repellant and perfumes.
What does lemongrass taste like?
Lemongrass has a unique aroma and flavour. It has floral notes, tastes slightly sweet but tangy, and unsurprisingly, of lemon – with hints of ginger too. It’s also understated, with quite a light flavour that elevates a dish, without overpowering the other ingredients.
What cuisine can lemongrass be used in?
Lemongrass heavily features in Thai, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian dishes because of its sweet, citrusy flavour, that doesn’t have the bitterness of lemon. Because of its lighter, softer flavour profile, it provides the perfect base for delicious dishes like Thai Green Curry, stir fries and the hot and sour soup, Tom Yum. Lemongrass is also used in a number of European dishes. African countries including the Democratic of Congo and Togo, often use lemongrass in tea, which can be enjoyed hot or cold. It can be used in other beverages too, like cocktails, mocktails and lemonade.
Fresh versus dried lemongrass: what’s the difference?
Fresh lemongrass is definitely best, giving foods a more citrusy, bright and minty flavour. Whereas dried lemongrass makes foods taste more woody, and tends to lose its flavour faster. If you’re cooking a stir-fry or curry, opt for fresh lemongrass. If you’re making soups, stews, broths or dishes simmered for a long time, use dried because it rehydrates as it cooks.
Where to buy lemongrass
You can buy lemongrass in mainstream supermarkets and it’s commonly found in Asian food stores too. You’ll also find it in specialty and health food stores. When shopping for lemongrass you want firm, heavy stalks with no bruising, that are pale yellow with green tips. If the stalks feel soft, or they’re dried up with brown outer leaves, don’t bother – you won’t get as much flavour out of them.
How to prepare and use lemongrass
Preparing lemongrass is easy if you’ve got the right tools: a sharp knife, chopping board and a food processor, or mortar and pestle. For cooking you want to use the softer, fleshier part of lemongrass, so you need to remove the tough outer leaves. Peel them away with your fingers and you’ll reveal a pale, yellow stalk that’s softer and easier to slice. The amount of layers you peel off depends on the freshness of the lemongrass – two layers ought to do it, or maybe a few more if the stalks aren’t fresh. Then, use your sharp knife to slice off the bottom of the stalk – about two inches from the bottom should remove the whole bulb. Now it’s time to slice. Starting from the lower end (where you removed the bulb), make thin slices up to two-thirds of the stalk. If you’re planning on making a stir-fry you may want to slice them paper thin so they’re easier to eat. You’ll know when to stop slicing because the lemongrass will no longer be yellow and fleshy.
Lemongrass is best cooked when it’s simmered low and slow because it gains intensity the longer it is cooked. So if you’re going for a strong, bold flavour, add it at the start of cooking. But if you want a more delicate flavour, add it closer to the end. If you’re making a soup or broth, slice the stalk into three-inch sections, then use a mortar or mallet to bash each one in turn, until you see the stalk slightly split open. Doing this releases the oils from the stalks and brings out its flavour. If you’re using your lemongrass to infuse a marinade or sauce, grate it. It can also be chopped up fine and used raw in salads. When using lemongrass, very little is wasted. The upper end of the stalk is mostly green and woody, but it’s also full of tons of lemony, gingery goodness, so don’t discard it. Simply cut the stalk and bend it to release the fragrance and flavour, then add it into your soup or curry pot. A word of warning: the stalk is inedible, so make sure you fish it out before serving.
Every part of the stalk has a role to play in the kitchen. You can use the stalks as skewers for your bbq or satay, to give your meat or vegetables extra flavour. Chicken skewers, pork skewers and beef skewers are just a few tasty recipe ideas.
How to use lemongrass in drinks
Don’t throw away lemongrass leaves. They’re also packed with flavour. Wash them thoroughly, crush them in your hands to release their oils and pop them in a pan filled with water and simmer for 10-12 minutes. It will infuse the delicious flavour of lemongrass into the water, which can then be used to make tea, cocktails, mocktails and summer coolers. If you’re a fan of vodka, drop a couple of the bruised stalks into a bottle, leave for a month, and enjoy.
How to store lemongrass
If you store lemongrass correctly, it lasts a long time. Wrap it in plastic and it can be kept in the fridge for a few weeks. Or you can freeze it for up to six months (also wrapped in plastic), without losing the herb’s unique flavour. If you have dry or powdered lemongrass, store it in an airtight container in a cool and dry place.
Substitutes for lemongrass
Planning to cook a last minute Thai Green Curry or stir fry and you can’t find any lemongrass in your kitchen? Fear not, there’s some worthy substitutes that will still give you the same tangy flavour. Lemon zest is a great and easy replacement for lemongrass. Just grate it into your dish and it will pack the same citrusy flavour and freshness. Adding freshly squeezed lemon juice is another simple alternative to using lemongrass. Just don’t overdo it, otherwise it will overpower the other flavours and make your dish overly acidic. Kaffir lime leaves are another safe option because they have a similar flavour profile to lemongrass. You can either use the leaves whole or slit them to above the midrib before adding them to your recipe. You can even combine them with lemon zest if you’re after a real citrusy flavour. If you’re looking for a combo alternative, try coriander stalks (not leaves) and fresh ginger. The aroma of coriander combined with the spicy, peppery taste of the ginger work really well together, especially in soups and broths, but you won’t get that lemony flavour.
Does lemongrass have any health benefits?
You may be surprised to learn that lemongrass has a number of health benefits. Containing many essential vitamins including vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C and folate. And it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties too. It’s also a nervine – that’s a herb that specifically supports the nervous system, and can be used to combat stress and anxiety. It can also help improve digestion, reduce cholesterol, relieve headaches, improve circulation and lower blood pressure. Its cooling, calming properties can also help relieve fever by promoting perspiration. Struggling to sleep? Lemongrass can help with that too, inducing the release of serotonin, a hormone released by the body to regulate sleep patterns. If you feel you’re coming down with a cold, try lemongrass tea along with a few slices of ginger as a natural cold remedy. The citronella content of lemongrass also acts as an effective insect repellent, blocking the scent that attracts mosquitoes and other irritating biting insects.
Recipes with lemongrass
Lemongrass features heavily in Thai recipes, like Thai Green Curry, Thai Massaman Chicken Curry, Tom Yum Soup and Thai vegetable stir fries. It’s one of the ingredients used to make Thai curry paste, alongside a mix of other herbs and spices including chillies, coriander root, garlic and shallots. Lemongrass also features in dishes with meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables. And is widely used in tea and other drinks, like lemonade, cocktails and coolers. Lemongrass isn’t just for use in savoury dishes though, it’s also used in desserts including cakes, panna cotta, coconut shortbread and crème brûlée.
How to grow lemongrass at home
Growing lemongrass at home isn’t difficult at all, so don’t worry if you’re not green thumbed. If you’re growing it from shop bought roots, look out for firm and fresh stalks. When you get home, trim a couple of inches off the top and peel away anything that looks dead. Place the stalks into a glass of shallow water, covering the bulb, and then pop them in a sunny position on your windowsill. Make sure you change the water every few days and within a few weeks roots will have started to appear. When this happens, transfer them into a pot of soil, put them back on your windowsill and watch them grow.