Though lavender is typically thought of as a flower, it’s also used in cooking a lot more than you probably think. This aromatic plant is part of the family Lamiaceae, the same group where you find culinary herbs including mint, basil, sage and rosemary. Technically, it’s classified under the moniker lavandula, but we know it by the common name lavender.
Where it’s from: You can find traces of lavender dating back thousands of years ago, when the ancient Egyptians used it in their mummification process. We figure they wanted their dead to head to the underworld smelling good. After all, in life, they used the plant to perfume their own bodies. The ancient Romans and Greeks also used the flower to add a nice smell to bathwater. And like the talented chefs of today, they incorporated it in food. Around this time, people also got hip to the medicinal properties this versatile plant possesses, using it as an antiseptic, an anti-spasmodic, an aid for insomnia and to stimulate circulation, as well as for calming and relaxing the senses.
In the late 1800s, Queen Victoria of England caught on to the joys of lavender and hired lavender distiller Sarah Sprules as the official Purveyor of Lavender Essence to the Queen. Yes, that was a job in 1886. Due to the popularity of lavender in the English court, ladies started growing the ornamental plant in their own gardens. This is where English lavender comes into play. But in fact, it’s not actually from the UK. Instead, lavender was first cultivated around the Mediterranean and Spain near the Pyrenees.
Today, lavender is mainly grown in Provence, France, but you can find it all over the United States, especially in California and Washington state. Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom also grow it. Appreciation for this particular aromatic isn’t universal, however. In some places, it’s treated as a weed because it grows so well, so fast, and squeezes out other plants. Think about that the next time you pay $10 for a little bunch of the stuff, which, in case you are wondering, is traditionally called a “tussie mussie” and was something people wore on their person as a form of perfume.
When it’s in season: The shrub-like perennial starts blossoming in the spring but peaks in early June through July, when the plants usually produce a second bloom. Though the flowers have a short life span, the evergreen plant keeps its sweet-smelling leaves all year round.
What to look for: As we know it, there are 39 species of this flowering plant. And like other herbs and spices, chefs and gardeners have their favorite varieties. One of the most common types you will find is lavandula angustifolia, otherwise known as English lavander. True lavender, garden lavender and narrow-leaf lavender are other popular varieties. When you are buying a bunch of flowers, you can find it fresh or dried, on the stock or broken down into buds. All of these work for cooking, though the fresh samples smell the best since they still have so much oil. Make sure your flowers remain mold-free, with a nice blue-purple-gray color.
How to store it: You want to keep lavender away from moisture, heat and light. Moisture causes mold, heat fades the fragrance and light dulls the color. To dry fresh lavender, bunch it up by the stem and hang it upside down in a neutral spot away from direct sunlight. If you live in a particularly humid environment, you can dry the lavender in a dehydrator or in the oven on a low heat for about 20 minutes. Afterward, keep the plant in an airtight container and use within six months.
How to prepare it: One of the most common ways you see lavender used in cooking is through the French spice blend Herbes de Provence — a mixture of the flower with basil, rosemary, thyme, savory and marjoram. Another popular use is in desserts. “I like to use lavender in infusions for flavors since it works well to brighten berries in jams, fillings and sauces, and works well with cream and chocolate,” says Meredith Tomason, chef and owner of RareSweets in Washington, D.C. “We use lavender to add depth to our raspberry and cherry fillings for cakes and doughnuts, as well as in our ice cream.”
To use this pretty plant in your own cooking, Tomason advises that that a little goes a long way. “The buds may be small, but they are mighty, especially if using dried lavender,” she says. “I usually suggest starting with a lesser amount than you think you may need and adding as you go to bring out the strength of flavor.” To do this, she steeps the buds in whatever she wants to infuse, be that sugar water, cream or even liquors (try it with gin or vodka). Just make sure to take it out within 24 hours. Otherwise, the liquid you are infusing starts to get a perfumed soap or bitter taste to it.
Also, you shouldn’t limit your lavender use to sweet treats (like in the recipe for lavender ice cream below). You can add it to savory meals as well. “It’s more versatile and can be used in a number of applications and can be paired with many different kinds of foods both sweet and savory,” says Tomason. “While I do not do it often, I do like using it in savory rubs for steaks and pork when I cook at home and not at the bakery.”
Lavender Ice Cream
Courtesy of Meredith Tomason and RareSweets in Washington, D.C.
Makes approximately 1 1/5 quarts
2 cups cream
2 cups whole milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 heaping cup sugar (times two)
1 1/2 tablespoons lavender buds*
5 ounces egg yolks
1. Bring the cream, milk, salt, first 1/3 cup of sugar and lavender buds to simmer in a pot over medium heat. Turn the heat off and let steep for 15 minutes.
2. Return milk mixture to a simmer. Once this is simmering, mix the second 1/3 cup of sugar with your egg yolks using a whisk. Slowly pour the milk mixture over your yolk mixture in three parts, making sure to mix thoroughly as you temper the mixtures together.
3. Return the base to the pot and over low heat, stir the mixture until it reaches 170 degrees.
4. Take the mixture off the heat and allow it to come to room temperature.
5. Put mixture in a container and chill overnight, or for at least six hours.
6. After chilling, run the base through a chinois or small-holed sieve to remove the lavender buds from the base. Do not press too hard or the mix will become bitter.
7. Mix ice cream base in your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
*Note: Use food-grade lavender for this recipe.
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