Lemongrass is one of those irreplaceable ingredients, often found in Thai, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian dishes—if you leave it out, or try to approximate its flavor with other things, you’ll be missing something vital. It lends a uniquely bright, citrusy, and floral-herbal fragrance to anything it touches, from curries and soups to salads and grilled meats, and there’s nothing else quite like it. The good news is, it’s pretty easy to find these days, and while the tough stalk may seem intimidating, it’s not difficult to prepare fresh lemongrass. You just need the right tools, and sometimes a little brute force. Let chefs Joanne Chang and Karen Akunowicz of Myers + Chang in Boston show you the way, and keep reading for more tips.
As the name suggests, this brightly perfumed plant is a tropical member of the grass family. There are several species of lemongrass, many of which have been cultivated for thousands of years in East Asian countries for both medicinal and culinary purposes. It’s been shown to have anti-fungal, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties, as well as antioxidants and various vitamins and minerals. It can even be used as a pest repellent, but of course it’s most enjoyable in edible form. The parts used in cooking are the woody stems at the base of the plant (the leaves can be used as well, but unless you’re growing your own lemongrass, you won’t usually find them attached to the stalks).
Fresh lemongrass can be found in pretty much any Asian market, and in lots of other supermarkets these days. If you don’t see it in the produce section, check the freezer case—and as a last resort, look for a tube of prepared lemongrass. It’s a pretty decent option if your only other one is doing entirely without, but be sure the label only includes a minimum of ingredients—there will usually always be a few additional preservatives, but you don’t necessarily want things like fish sauce, chiles, garlic, etc. interfering with the lemongrass flavor. You may be able to find dried lemongrass too, which is okay to use in certain applications (mainly infusing broths and sauces, and grinding into highly seasoned curry pastes with lots of other flavorful ingredients, as well as steeping for tea), but it’s generally not as bright or complex as fresh, and doesn’t work well in stir-fries, salads, or any recipes without a lot of liquid to re-hydrate and extract the flavor from it.
If you’re lucky enough to find fresh lemongrass stalks, choose ones that are aromatic, firm, unblemished, relatively heavy, and anywhere from a creamy, pale yellow to bright green in color. Avoid stalks that have no scent, or are overly bruised, brown, flaky, too light in weight, or where the layers of the stalks are loose, as these are all signs of old, dried-up lemongrass that’s not worth buying.
You can store fresh lemongrass wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or freeze it (also wrapped in plastic) for up to 6 months.
If you want your own home-grown supply of lemongrass, you can propagate the fresh stalks you buy at the store. Just place a few in a jar with a couple inches of water in it, and set it in a sunny spot. Change the water every day, and within a few weeks, you should see roots sprouting from the bottoms of the stalks. When they’re at least a couple inches long, you can transfer the lemongrass to a well-drained pot or other container with moist potting soil, or plant them right in your garden, in a sunny, well-drained spot. They’re pretty hardy, low-maintenance plants, although they don’t tolerate frost, so you may need to overwinter them indoors. When you want to harvest stalks, choose them from the outer part of the plant and gently bend toward the ground; they should snap off easily. You can use the leaves to make tea. The stalks may be more tender and juicy than what you’d buy at the store, but they’ll be treated the same way.
When you’re ready to cook with your lemongrass, peel away and discard any dry, papery, or bruised outer layers from the stalks, then use a sharp knife or cleaver to trim away the bottom root end, and cut off the woody top two-thirds of each stalk as well so you’re left with 5 or 6 inches. Discard (or compost!) the trimmings. The next step depends on how you want to use your lemongrass…
If you just want to infuse a liquid with lemongrass flavor, simply cut the trimmed stalks into shorter pieces that will fit well in your pot, smash them with the back of a heavy cleaver, a mallet, or even the bottom of a wine bottle to release the aromatic oils, then toss them in the pot to simmer away, and fish the pieces out just before serving. Try adding them to chicken noodle soup, vegetable stock, or rice as it’s cooking, or boil the pieces with sugar and water to make lemongrass syrup to use in drinks and desserts. (And there’s always classic bun bo hue.)
If you want to more fully incorporate your lemongrass, you might need to trim a bit more away. Chop off enough of the top and thick bottom end so that you’re down to the paler, more flexible few middle inches of the stalk, and peel off another outside layer or two if need be (but save these tougher scraps in the fridge or freezer to use another time, as indicated above). Even the paler, more tender portion of the stalk is still plenty fibrous, so make sure your knife is sharp, and watch your fingers. Slice the stalk into thin rounds; if you have a sharp knife but it’s still meeting a lot of resistance, that portion of the stalk is probably too tough to use (except in infusions). You can use these thin, tender rounds as-is (like in the classic Thai salad yum takrai), or chop them even finer, either by hand or in a food processor. You can also grind the pieces to a paste in a mortar and pestle, or use a Microplane to grate the stalk into sauces and marinades. The goal is just to break it down as finely as possible so you don’t end up with stringy, tough bits of plant matter in your finished dish. Try stirring some minced, mashed, or grated lemongrass into anything where you’d normally use lemon zest, like vinaigrette, mayonnaise or aioli, and even baked goods.
Now that you know how to score it, save it, and slice and dice it, check out some delicious ways to cook with lemongrass:
Similar to Thai tom kha gai, Malaysian laksa is based on a coconut milk broth rich with aromatics, including lemongrass and galangal (or ginger). Laksa also features thin vermicelli noodles and whatever protein you like. This recipe calls for fried tofu puffs, but you could add or substitute chicken, shrimp, or other seafood, whatever sounds good. Get the Laksa Noodle Soup recipe.
Grilled lemongrass pork is a staple on Vietnamese restaurant menus, but it’s super-easy to make at home. We went with kebabs, but you could use chops instead, or even another meat entirely—and then you can eat it with rice or in a sandwich for a simple meal, or spend a bit more time making our Rice Paper Banh Mi with Lemongrass Pork for a party. No matter what, it’ll be delicious. Get our Grilled Lemongrass Pork Kebabs recipe.
This hearty and healthy veggie stir-fry can take whatever green things you want to throw into it, making it perfect for all seasons. What stays the same is the lemongrass-pistachio pesto that adds brightness and zest, and is fantastic on pretty much anything, from grilled chicken to baked tofu. Get The Green Monster Stir-Fry recipe.
These incredible chicken wings are marinated in a sweet-spicy-savory-tangy combo of ingredients including lemongrass, chiles, garlic, turmeric, and ginger, then baked until crispy. Dangerously easy to make (and eat). Get the Spicy Lemongrass Chicken Wings recipe.
This vegetarian Thai curry stars silky eggplant that soaks up the rich coconut milk and lemongrass sauce. Serve with steamed rice to catch every last drop. Get our Eggplant Curry with Lemongrass and Coconut Milk recipe.
Lemongrass vinaigrette elevates even the most common bowl of lettuce, and sliced lemongrass stars in several Thai salads, but in this Vietnamese bowl of goodness, the aromatic herb is blended with garlic, Sriracha, fish sauce, and brown sugar to coat grilled shrimp that perch atop a pile of fresh, crunchy vegetables, slippery noodles, and herbs. Get our recipe.
There are lots of ways to use lemongrass in drinks: you can steep leaves or dried stalks into hot tea, use it to infuse your own bitters, or simmer it in simple syrup for mixing into various cocktails, mocktails, or lemonade. Here, the tough parts of lemongrass stalks are boiled to make a simple, refreshing tea, perfect served chilled in the summer. Get the Fresh Lemongrass Tea recipe.
Lemongrass is lovely in desserts as well. You can use the smashed stalks to infuse custards, ice cream, and sorbet, or you can grind lemongrass in a food processor and mix it with sugar, which can be used in pretty much anything, from angel food cake to cookies. Here, it’s stirred into a gooey filling for coconut shortbread bars, for a tropical twist on the classic lemon bars. Get the Lemongrass Squares with Coconut Shortbread Crust recipe.