“A mint is a mint is mint” is something Gertrude Stein absolutely never wrote and glad are we, because it would have been abundantly false. Mint or “Mentha” is, in fact, a genus of herbal plants of which there are thought to be roughly 15 different species. Of those 15, two emerged dominant over time in culinary uses; spearmint and peppermint.
Most are vaguely familiar with, or at least recognize the name of those two variations of the fragrant green stuff from your favorite candy, cocktail or cartoon character, but what is the difference, and more importantly, when should you be using one versus the other? Both good questions and ones we hope to answer for you here.
As we already covered, both spearmint and peppermint are members of the same family and thus have rather similar properties as it relates to appearance, cultivation, flavor, and use.
The most striking difference is the amount of menthol – an organic compound found in all Menthas responsible for the bulk of mint’s sweet, sometimes spicy, flavor
Spearmint, containing less than 1% menthol is the far more delicate with a subtly sweet profile, and thus often found in savory dishes; much less likely to overpower other herbs and spices. Greeks have incorporated mint into savory cooking more than any other culture and you’ll surely to find it flavoring dishes with cheese, yogurt spreads like tzatziki, and even tomato sauces and meat dishes at your local Taverna.
Although not always thought to be, peppermint is actually a hybrid of spearmint and water mint. At 40% menthol, it is the surly, punchy and powerful member of the Metha family, and the intensity of it’s “minty” flavor borders on spiciness, earning it a fitting name. In some cases the two can be used interchangeably, but because of peppermint’s concentrated flavor you’re likely to find it in foods and items looking to feature the flavor prominently, like candy, tea or even a minty mojito.
Both spearmint and peppermint are indigenous to Europe and the Middle East but are now found most places and can be grown quite easily in gardens or indoor pots. Because of this, there is little need (or excuse) to use dried mint which pales in comparison to freshly grown.
Beyond cooking, both peppermint and spearmint are said to have medicinal properties in stomach ailments and topical relief from muscle pain and itching. Because of it’s higher level of menthol, peppermint is used more broadly for these purposes and the herb’s oil is so potent it is even known to repel some pest insects, including mosquitos and have uses in organic gardening. The oil, also used in cooking, especially for candies and desserts can be found in most grocery stores.
There are almost endless culinary reasons to have mint or mint oil laying around and a simple mint syrup like this one will raise your home bar game to seriously heightened levels.
Anyways let’s get to some recipes that highlight both spearmint and peppermint!
Ginger and mint are largely complimentary, both containing a subtle spice. In this large batch cocktail, muddle peppermint sprigs to punch it up, but be careful not to over-muddle – just enough to release the aromatic oils. Get our recipe for Ginger Mojitos.
Truffles are a winning dessert to bring to any holiday gathering. They are playful and social, in that folks can just pick one without committing to a whole slice. This peppermint and chocolate recipe calls for peppermint oil, which is found in most good grocery stores. Get the recipe.
If you’re looking for full mint flavor in this chimuchurri sauce, feel free to go peppermint. An exception to the soft rule. Get the recipe.
Peppermint candy can be made at home, but is perhaps more trouble then its worth. Do, however, use store bough peppermint to add holiday flare to desserts of all sorts. This festive ice cream starts with peppermint oil in the base and calls for crushed peppermint candy to finish. Get the recipe.
As we mentioned, Greek cuisine features mint heavily in savory fare and these lamb meatballs with lemon cumin and mint yogurt are a great example. Spearmint is the better choice for this dish as it will play nice in the sandbox with the cumin and other spices. Get our Lamb Meatballs with Lemon-Cumin Yogurt recipe.
Another classic pairing for spearmint is feta. Tear or thinly slice the mint to blend seamless with the kale and other ingredients. Get our Kale, Tomatoes, Feta and Mint Salad recipe.
Mint also finds itself tucked into other world cuisines. In these Vietnamese rice paper Banh Mi with Lemongrass Pork the mint provides a delightfully surprising sweetness. Get our Rice Paper Banh Mi with Lemongrass Pork recipe.