Both spearmint and peppermint belong to the same Mentha genus but the names refer to different species. Peppermint is actually a spearmint and watermint hybrid. In other words, these two herbs have a lot in common. They are also different herbs with different properties and applications. If you are confused about which to use or which properties belong to which mint, we will tackle their differences in this edition of SPICEography Showdown.
How do spearmint and peppermint differ?
Spearmint belongs to the Spicata species and is not a hybrid, while peppermint is a member of the piperita species and it is a hybrid.
Taste is another big difference since spearmint is well known for having a mild flavor. It gets its taste from the compound carvone, which is sweet and has only a mild cooling effect. It does contain some menthol but most sources estimate it to be 1 percent or below. Peppermint has a much more pungent flavor that comes with a strong cooling sensation, which it gets from menthol. It has one of the highest menthol concentrations in the mint family. The intensity of its flavor is where it gets the pepper part of its name. It is so strong that it is literally peppery.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Spearmint is widely considered the more versatile of the two mints since it has a milder taste that does not overwhelm every other flavor in a dish. Its mildness is why you are more likely to see it used in savory dishes. In the US, peppermint is generally associated with candies. You will have to be careful when using it for other applications. That said, it is mainly a matter of taste as both herbs are often used in many of the same applications.
You can use both interchangeably in teas, cocktails, and desserts. Because spearmint is milder-tasting, you will need to use more of it when replacing peppermint. That mildness is what makes it great in salads and other savory preparations. Excessive peppermint may give an odd taste to those dishes.
Note that even with high concentrations of spearmint you will not be able to achieve the intense cooling properties that you would get from peppermint. This also means that spearmint with its low menthol concentration may not be as effective for relieving congestion from a cold as peppermint would be. If you have to use peppermint in place of spearmint, use less of it. Note, too, that even low concentrations still will not provide the sweetness that you would get from carvone. In other words, these herbs are serviceable but imperfect substitutes for each other.
When should you use spearmint and when should you use peppermint?
Use spearmint if you are making a tzatziki sauce, an Indian chutney or an English-style mint sauce that you plan to serve with lamb. It also works well as the mint component of the mojito cocktail. Peppermint can work in mojitos, though you will have to use it in moderation. Peppermint tea is also flavorful due to its high menthol content, which makes it effective for treating congestion. Peppermint is great for desserts like ice cream and pairs well with chocolate. Use it to make chocolate mint brownies or a chocolate mint frosting.