Lemon verbena is arguably the most pungent lemon-scented herb. The category of lemony herbs includes some of the main substitutes on the list below. Lemon verbena’s lemony flavor is just as useful for giving a pleasant citrus note to seafood as it is for providing giving a clean, bright flavor to some cocktails. The difficulty with this herb is that you may not be able to find it at your local grocery store. If you don’t have the time or patience to grow some yourself, try one of the lemon verbena substitutes below.
Your best bet: Lemongrass
Perhaps the best-known and easiest to find of the lemon-scented herbs, lemongrass offers the same scent and flavor that you would get from lemon verbena. It is used mostly in Southeast Asian cooking where it provides a slightly more savory lemon note to dishes. When using lemongrass as a lemon verbena substitute, you should keep in mind that you will have to prepare and use it differently.
Lemongrass is fibrous with layers of leaves. Unless you are cooking only the inner leaves, you will have to use it as you would a bay leaf. Place large pieces in food that will be braised or fried and then remove those pieces before you serve the dish. The leaves are difficult to chew and this keeps them from being a choking hazard. If you are using the more tender inner leaves, you can chop them finely and use them like green onions; they should become tender enough to not detract from the dish.
A decent second choice: Lemon balm
Lemon balm is often confused with lemon verbena, both because of the name and because both herbs can provide a touch of lemon to dishes and beverages. The lemon note is similar enough that they make decent alternatives to each other. The only real drawback to using lemon balm is finding it; it is not a common herb. Unless you grow it yourself, finding it fresh will be difficult.
Lemon balm belongs to the mint family and has a slight minty undertone. The minty component will usually work in recipes that call for lemon verbena or it will be undetectable. Lemon balm can be used in place of lemon verbena in both sweet and savory dishes.
In a pinch: Lemon basil
Lemon basil is one of many different basil varieties. It is a hybrid of basil and African basil. Other names for it include hoary basil. It is exactly what its name suggests—a lemon-scented basil, which means that you get the scents of lemon and of basil in one herb. Lemon basil is used mostly in North African and Southeast Asian cooking and is known for its pungent aroma.
Like the other lemon verbena substitutes on this list, lemon basil is versatile and has a range of applications that include both sweet and savory dishes. The traditional uses of it are mostly savory, but it has been added to both desserts and to beverages. When using lemon basil in place of lemon verbena, note that it suffers from one of the drawbacks of most basil varieties in that it does not stand up well to long cooking times. When adding it to a dish, it is best to add it the end of cooking.
Like lemon basil, lemon thyme offers a combination of two flavors—lemon and thyme. As with lemon balm, these two flavors pair well with each other and enable the herb to work as a good lemon verbena substitute.
Lemon zest by itself does not have the herbal notes that you would get from lemon verbena; however, it does provide the citrus ones. It is a workable alternative in many of the dishes that require lemon verbena.