Stevia 101

Stevia and teaOn a whim this summer, I planted some organic stevia seeds. For weeks, I watched with anticipation as tiny seedlings sprouted—excruciatingly slowly. But I was confident that the wait would be worth it. I’d seen over and over again how much more zing I could get from fresh-picked herbs than from the store-bought variety, and the organic stevia drops my husband brought home from the market were a pretty great starting point—sweet but not cloying, more complex-tasting than white sugar, and calorie-free!

When my plants were about 8 inches high, I plucked a few leaves and plopped them into a nice hot cup of tea. After steeping it for a few minutes, I lifted the cup to my lips and tasted … nothing. If I had expected the stevia to release its sweetness into a hot brew, like a bunch of fresh mint leaves, I was mistaken. And that wasn’t my only error.

Stevia grown from seedChastened, I did what I should have done in the first place—look up some information about cultivating stevia. Here’s what I learned.
1. Never grow stevia from seed. Oops. The levels of natural sweeteners in stevia can vary widely when the plants are grown “from scratch.” They’re much more reliable if you take cuttings from plants known to be high in these compounds. Look for “starter” plants in nurseries.
2. Wait till just before the frost to harvest the leaves. Cool autumn air and short days seem to favor higher levels of “stevioside” and “rebA,” the main sweeteners in stevia, so delay as long as you can.
3. For maximum effect, dry the leaves and grind them rather than simply immersing them in a hot beverage. While the latter will work with intensely sweet leaves, you will extract more of the sweeteners by going the former route. Dry the leaves on a screen or net to ensure good air circulation. In a day or two, you can crush and grind them.

Dried Stevia leaves about to be ground By this point, it was too late to rectify Mistake #1. But Mistakes #2 and #3 were correctible, at least for the unharvested leaves. I left the rest of my stevia outside until just before Hurricane Sandy hit. Then I plucked everything that was left and brought it inside to dry (outdoor drying not really being an option in the storm). Once the leaves had crinkled, I ground them with a mortar and pestle.

The result? My stevia is very pleasant, almost anise-like. But it’s still no match for a cup of strong coffee.

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