Many of you have asked about this herb. For years, I have been literally up on my herbal soap box talking about Stevia. It comes from Paraguay and the leaves of this plant are the sweetest natural product known. Stevia can be several hundred times sweeter than sugar, is non-caloric, and diabetic safe. It doesn’t promote tooth decay.
Stevia (S. Rebaudiana) is a member of the aster family (Compositae) and grows to be a small perennial shrub-like plant native to Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The natives in those countries most likely have used the leaves to sweeten their foods since pre-Columbian times, but it wasn’t until 1887 that a scientist discovered it.
The Japanese started growing Stevia in the 1950’s. When their government banned some artificial sweeteners due to health concerns in the late 60’s, Stevia use skyrocketed. It is now the main sugar substitute in Japan.
Stevia use in the U.S. has been increasing, and you can find Stevia in the health food aisle of your local grocer. I like the Stevia that NuNaturals puts out. It doesn’t have bitter after tones and is available in several varieties. To me, it has a one-dimensional sweet taste. Sweet Leaf is also a brand many people like.
Growing You Own
I have had my Stevia plants for several years. Due to our winters here in the midwest, I move the plants into the house in winter (it’s a tender perennial.) Best started from cuttings or small plants, Stevia does best in sun with a moist soil.
Using and Preserving Stevia
Harvest it just as it begins to flower, as this is when the plant is at its sweetest. To dry, strip an inch or so of the bottom leaves from the stem, hang upside down in a cool, dry place. When the leaves can be crumbled between your palms, the herb is dry enough. Store away from heat and light.
I am constantly pinching leaves off to bruise for sweetening hot and cold beverages and I do that long before the plant flowers.
If your plant is extremely sweet, one large leaf will sweeten a pitcher of ice tea. Go to taste on this, though. You may need several leaves.
Stevia’s components are heat stable. You can even combine it with other sweeteners. It doesn’t have the caramelizing effect like sugar, because it doesn’t brown or crystallize like sugar. If you use pulverized dried leaves, they may color your food a bit.
When Best to Use?
I recommend you start using Stevia to sweeten foods like applesauces, smoothies, nut butters, bread puddings, custards, and pies. I don’t have much success using it in cakes that require much leavening, but I’m learning. I like using Stevia extract in drinks, etc.
How much? Start using one teaspoon in place of one cup of sugar, Too much and it tastes bitter.
Homemade Stevia Extract
Mix together 1 cup very hot distilled water with 1 cup bruised fresh Stevia leaves or 1/2 cup dried crushed Stevia leaves. Put in a jar with a cover. Let it stand for a day, then filter through a coffee filter. Refrigerate, covered, up to a month or freeze up to 6 months. You can dilute it with water if you want.
Stevia Mint Syrup
Sometimes I add crushed mint leaves to the hot water with the Stevia to make a mint extract. To make it more like a syrup, soften a teaspoon or so of unflavored gelatin in a tablespoon of cold water, then dissolve it in the hot liquid. This is wonderful on fresh or frozen, thawed fruits.
Berry Coulis Sweetened With Stevia
12-16 frozen or fresh berries, any kind – I like the mixture of blackberries, blueberries & raspberries or simply raspberries
Splash of lemon juice
Stevia to taste
Cook everything but Stevia together until berries can be mashed. Run through a strainer, then sweeten to taste. Delicious over frozen yogurt, angel food cake, or stirred into beverages, like lemonade.
Rita Nader Heikenfeld, CCP, CMH, is a Certified Culinary Professional and Certfied Modern Herbalist, educator, author, founding editor of www.Abouteating.com
a popular website that showcases her many interests in healthy living.