Lemongrass is a stalky plant with a lemony scent that grows in many tropical climates, most notably in Southeast-Asia. A common ingredient in Thai cooking, lemongrass provides a zesty lemon flavor and aroma to many Thai dishes. 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Simply cut the yellow stalk into 2- to 3-inch lengths. Then “bruise” these sections by bending them several times. You can also 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.
- Slice the lemongrass. In this case, we are preparing the lemongrass to be consumed, adding fiber, nutrients, and more flavor to the dish. You will need a very sharp knife, as the stalk is quite firm. Cut the yellow section of the stalk into thin slices and place these in a food processor. Process well.
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.
Growing Your Own
If you would like to try growing your own lemongrass, simply 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.
Lemongrass is also thought to have numerous health benefits, especially when used in combination with other Thai spices such as garlic, fresh chilies, and coriander. In fact, scientists are now studying Thailand's favorite soup, tom yum kung, which contains all of these herbs and spices, with lemongrass as the key player. Tom yum is thought to be capable of combatting colds, cases of the flu, and even some cancers.