Lemon Balm Vs. Mint: SPICEography Showdown

Lemon balm and mint are two herbs used all over the world in both savory and sweet preparations. Mint is the more common of the two herbs and you will probably have an easier time finding it in your local grocery store’s produce section when compared to the slightly more exotic lemon balm. However, neither really is all that difficult to find or to grow yourself. Since both tend to show up in the same kinds of dishes, you may be wondering which of them to use. If you are, read on to see how these herbs compare in this edition of SPICEography Showdown.

How do lemon balm and mint differ?

While mint and lemon balm do come from the same family, they come from different branches of that family. In fact, it could be said that the plant we call mint is itself a kind of sub-family within the greater Lamiaceae family that includes herbs like oregano and basil. There is only one lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis) but there are over 40 varieties of mint. The result is that lemon balm and some of those mint varieties differ in both appearance and flavor. Lemon balm’s flavor is mildly lemony with a very subtle mint note, while mint’s flavor is simply minty with no lemon note. Lemon balm is arguably the least versatile of the two as far as its applications the western world are concerned. It is not as familiar and does not play as noticeable a role in popular dishes as mint.

Can you use lemon balm as a substitute for mint and vice versa?

The differences between the flavors of lemon balm and mint are significant enough that they cannot be used interchangeably. Using them as 1:1 substitutes for each other will dramatically change the flavor profile of a dish. That said, these two herbs should work in many of the same applications. For example, a cocktail that is normally made with lemon balm will most likely not be ruined if you use mint in its place. Similarly, a meat dish flavored with mint will usually still work if you switch it out with lemon balm.

Mint can be made into a better substitute for lemon balm with the addition of lemon zest. Similarly, you can make lemon balm more minty by adding a small amount of mint extract.

When it comes to tea, lemon balm and mint are both popular herbs but have different properties. While both share characteristics when it comes to carminative and other digestive benefits, lemon balm works as a mild sleep aid and anxiolytic. Mint does not help with sleep or anxiety.

When should you use lemon balm and when should you use mint?

Use lemon balm in dishes that can benefit from a mild citrus note. This includes fish and poultry preparations. You may also find that salad dressings can be improved with a touch of lemon as well as a subtle mint flavor. Use mint in dishes where you want mint’s strong herbaceous character and cooling effect. It works well as a contrast for the strong gamey flavors of meats like lamb or mutton; its menthol notes also help to brighten the flavors of salads and some beverages.