Lemongrass lends its citrus-like aroma and zing to many Thai dishes. It is also is used in herbal teas (tisanes) and has become a popular element in cocktails. You can find lemongrass in fresh, dried, or powdered forms
What Is Lemongrass?
Lemongrass is an herb with a lemony scent. The culinary herb is produced from the stalk of the lemongrass plant (Cymbopogon citratus). This plant grows in many tropical climates, most notably in Southeast Asia. It is a common ingredient in Thai cooking and can also be found in dishes from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India.
Fresh vs. Dried
Fresh lemongrass is preferred as it gives a better mix of bright and complex flavors. Dried lemongrass has more of a woodsy flavor. Stir-fries call for finely-diced fresh lemongrass as the dried form will simply dry out more. But dried lemongrass can be used in soups and other long-simmered dishes where it has time to rehydrate.
What Does It Taste Like?
Lemongrass imparts a flavor of lemon with hints of ginger. It has the same essential oil as lemons and it is often used in herbal teas to give a lemon flavor. Fresh lemongrass can have floral and minty notes as well.
Cooking With Lemongrass
To use fresh lemongrass in your cooking, always cut off the lower bulb and remove tough outer leaves. The main stalk (the yellow section) is what is used in Thai cooking. From here, you have two options. You can cut the yellow stalk into 2- to 3-inch lengths and then “bruise” these sections by bending them several times. In addition, create superficial cuts along these sections with your knife, which will help release the lemon flavor. Add these bruised stalks to your soup or curry. When serving, remove the lemongrass pieces, or ask your guests to set them aside as they eat.
If the lemongrass is intended to remain in the food when eaten, you can slice the yellow section of the lemongrass stalk into thin slices with a sharp knife. Then place these in a food processor and process well.
Dried lemongrass is added during cooking when the dish has enough fluid to allow it to rehydrate and release its flavor. It is often removed before the dish is eaten, or strained from beverages. Lemongrass powder can be added at any point in cooking.
Note that lemongrass is extremely fibrous and a little stringy (more like threads, actually). For this reason, be sure to cook your Thai dish thoroughly. If you are making a soup, for example, boil the lemongrass for at least five to 10 minutes in the broth in order for it to soften adequately.
Recipes With Lemongrass
Lemongrass is used in soup and dishes with meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables. It is also widely used in tea and other beverages.
Lemon juice (or lime) may be substituted for lemongrass in a pinch, but citrus fruits will not be able to fully replicate its particular qualities. If you used ground lemongrass powder, substitute 1 teaspoon ground for one stalk of fresh lemongrass.
Uses of Lemongrass
The essential oil of lemongrass is used as a fragrance for products including cosmetics, soap, and deodorant. It can also be used in making vitamin A supplements. The citral compound found in lemongrass can act as a natural insect repellant along with its botanical cousin, citronella.
Where to Buy Lemongrass
Look for fresh lemongrass at your local grocery store or Asian market. If you can't find it with the fresh produce, check the freezer section for lemongrass stalks sold in frozen packets. You can also buy frozen prepared (ready-to-use) lemongrass.
Usually, fresh lemongrass is sold in groupings of three to four stalks, secured with an elastic band. Stalks are approximately 1 foot long (or more). When purchasing lemongrass, look for firm stalks—not soft or rubbery, which means it's too old. Lower stalk should be pale yellow (almost white) in color, while upper stalks are green. Do not purchase it if outer leaves are crusty or brown.
Growing Your Own Lemongrass
Buy a few stalks from the store and place the bulb end in water. Allow it to soak until roots form (this may take anywhere from two weeks to a month). Once your lemongrass has developed roots 1/2 inch to 1 inch long, plant it in your garden or in a pot with lots of rich soil. Lemongrass likes sun and warm temperatures, so if you choose to keep it indoors as a houseplant, be sure to give it a south-facing window. Lemongrass makes a beautiful houseplant or ornamental garden plant that you can also use in your cooking.
To store fresh lemongrass, wrap it loosely and place it in the refrigerator. It should keep for a few weeks. You can also freeze the whole stalks, or mince the stalks and freeze them in 1-tablespoon portions to use in your recipes. Dried or powdered lemongrass should be stored in airtight containers away from light and heat.
Health Benefits of Lemongrass
Lemongrass tea is traditionally used for relieving anxiety and it has a diuretic effect against bloating. As well, there have been studies that suggest it might relieve the symptoms of thrush (oral candidiasis) in people with HIV/AIDS. Because lemongrass oil is high in citral and limonene, it may have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects. Lemongrass oil is utilized in aromatherapy and as a topically-applied essential oil. Interestingly, some studies have found that a lemongrass oil solution applied to the scalp can help reduce dandruff.