Lemon balm is an ancient herb that has long been used both for its medicinal benefits as well as for its flavor. Because it is not the most widely used herb, the best way to get your hands on some is probably to grow it yourself. If you need it right now, consider one of the lemon balm substitutes below.
Your best bet: Lemon zest + mint leaves
Lemon balm’s main flavor is somewhat similar to the citrus fruit after which it is named. The best way to get a similar lemony note is by using the fruit itself in the form of lemon zest or lemon peel. Fresh lemon zest/peel will likely be easier to find and is a better substitute for fresh lemon balm; dried lemon peel or zest will be a better replacement for dried lemon balm. Lemon balm belongs to the mint family, which accounts for its very subtle minty notes. Of course, the best way to get those notes will be to use mint.
As with the lemon zest/peel component of this substitute, you will want to use fresh to replace fresh and dried to replace dried. Both mint and lemon have long been used to flavor teas, just like lemon balm. Note that the lemon and mint alternative to lemon balm is purely about replacing the flavor and will not provide the relaxation benefits that come with a lemon balm tea. Both options can be used in marinades and other methods of seasoning food.
A decent second choice: Lemongrass
Lemongrass is another popular lemon-scented herb. It is used mostly in dishes from Southeast Asia where it is often paired with ginger and chile peppers. It is also commonly used to make a tea in the Caribbean and elsewhere. It has similar lemony notes to those of lemon balm, which makes it a good substitute even though it does not have the same minty back note. When using lemongrass you may have to adjust your recipe for the fact that you will have to remove the herb from the dish before serving it.
Unlike lemon balm, lemongrass stalks are fibrous and inedible except for the tender inner leaves of fresh lemongrass. To avoid having to remove lemongrass, you can either seek out the fresh herb or use prepared lemongrass. Many grocery stores carry prepared lemongrass that has been ground and packaged in tubes. Note that lemongrass does provide the same relaxing health benefits that you would get from lemon balm.
In a pinch: Lemon verbena
Lemon verbena is often considered the most intensely lemon-scented of all the lemon herbs. The flavor consists primarily of the lemon note with a lightly floral back note. Even though it lacks the slight minty undertone of lemon balm, it is still a good substitute for it. You may need to use less of it when compared to lemon balm if want a closer match to the level of citrus flavor in lemon balm. Use in place of lemon balm for making teas and for seasoning food. Note that while lemon verbena does have health benefits, lemon verbena tea will not provide the same anti-anxiety benefits that lemon balm tea provides.
Makrut lime leaves (also known as kaffir lime leaves) are another South Asian herb that can give a citrus note to your food. The flavor is not exactly the same as that of lemon balm and it is not an herb that is traditionally used for tea or desserts; however, these lime leaves will work in most savory applications.
Lemon thyme can provide the same lemon note as the lemon balm substitutes above, but it also provides a rather strong thyme flavor. The thyme flavor will make lemon thyme an effective lemon balm substitute in savory dishes, but may not work in desserts. In addition, lemon thyme is not usually used as a tea herb.