Lemon balm and lemongrass are lemon-scented herbs that are often used to provide lemon and herbal notes in different foods. Aside from the fact that they both offer a lemon flavor, there are some significant differences between them. Consider the following SPICEography Showdown if you are trying to decide which of these herbs to use.
How do lemon balm and lemongrass differ?
Lemon balm and lemongrass are two different plants that originated in different parts of the world. Lemon balm belongs to the Lamiaceae family, to which other popular herbs like mint and basil also belong. As a result of this, it has a mildly minty and floral taste to go with its lemon notes. Further stressing its mint heritage is the fact that one of its names is balm mint. Lemon balm’s origins lie in Europe and the Middle East; specifically, areas in Southern Europe and in Iran. Fresh lemon balm is not easy to find in most grocery stores
Lemongrass is a grass, not a shrub like lemon balm. This means that it consists of long stalks made up of tightly wrapped fibrous layers. It belongs to the same general family as maize and bamboo. Unlike lemon balm, lemongrass does not have a strong minty undertone. The flavor profile is primarily the lemon note against a mildly herbaceous background, the result is a more astringent flavor profile than you would get from lemon balm. Lemongrass is a tropical plant that comes from Southeast Asia and surrounding regions.
Can you use lemon balm in place of lemongrass and vice versa?
Lemon balm and lemongrass are not perfectly interchangeable, but they can serve as substitutes for each other in a pinch. It is important to note that they will only work as substitutes as long as you are mindful of their differences.
Consider the fact that lemon balm’s sweeter flavor profile may not work well in all of the savory dishes that require lemongrass. For example, some spicy Thai stir-fried dishes may require a source of the lemon flavor profile that has a much less floral flavor profile; other dishes might benefit from sweeter notes. Like many members of the mint family, it is a more delicate herb and cannot stand up to long cooking times. You can compensate for this tendency by adding it at the end of the cooking time.
The astringency of lemongrass may not be ideal for the sweet preparations, though it may work in some and should work in all of the savory ones. Note also that the outer leaves of fresh lemongrass are fibrous, which means that they will have to be removed before serving the dish. This may mean that it will not work as a good substitute in baked goods that require lemon balm. To get around this, ground lemongrass leaves or the tender inner leaves of the stalk should be used instead.
Both herbs are good for making tea; however, lemon balm has a specific benefit in that it has anti-anxiety properties that lemongrass will not have.
When should you use lemon balm and when should you use lemongrass?
Use lemon balm leaves in salads or to add a citrus and floral note to salad dressings. The herb is versatile in that it makes a good addition to desserts as well, due to its sweetness. Lemon balm in cookies and cakes can be both visually attractive and provide a delightful flavor. Use in cocktails, both for flavoring and as a garnish. Lemongrass has an astringency that makes it better in savory preparations, which is where it is traditionally used. Use it in green curry and tom yum soup as well as for seafood.