Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Lavender

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[Photograph: Martin Pettitt on Flickr]

When thinking about culinary herbs and spices, it's easy to lose track of all the uses societies have thought up for them. Many are used as much for their medicinal qualities as for how they flavor foods. Others have been co-opted by the odor and odor-coverup industry, used to perfume our hand soaps and stuff potpourri baskets. Some unfortunate herbs are locked into indefinite contracts with grapefruit zest or fake green apple smell, locked into our cultural consciousness as soapy fragrances, their careers as culinary ingredients all but over.

Lavender has teetered on the edge of this fate, but plenty of cooks have fought the good fight to keep it in our contemporary cuisine. And with good reason: It's a robust and versatile herb, as distinctive as rosemary, well-suited to sweet and savory uses. Beneath a psychological link to froofy soaps and a reputation for preciousness lies an herb just waiting to be explored by curious cooks. And if you follow a couple small guidelines and keep in mind its flavor affinities, it's hard to do wrong by lavender.

How Do You Use It?

Lavender's flavor and aroma are instantly recognizable, which makes it a perfect unexpected culinary herb. Its most typical pairing is dairy, be it cream, custard, or butter. Scones, muffins, biscuits, ice cream, and frosting are all excellent candidates for a small amount of lavender. Mellow but assertive, lavender rides on rich flavors and textures while giving them a much needed lift. It works well with honey for the same reason, and if you're using honey harvested from a single flower, lavender can do wonders to highlight it. You can also use it in combination with citrus, as I have in this simple orange-lavender honey butter, best spread on the aforementioned scones.

But it isn't just for desserts. When used judiciously, lavender can bring an incredible spring feeling to a dish. Whisk it into vinaigrettes, toss it with some roasted vegetables or a ratatouille, or use it in some pasta. You can also use it in a marinade for grilled lamb (especially awesome that way) or in a brine for pork chops.

Dried lavender is a frequent addition to the herb blend herbes de Provence along with thyme, fennel, and some others, which is cooked in hot oil for a few seconds at the start of a dish or tossed in as a garnish. Dried lavender can be used whole, but if you're making something with a silky-smooth texture, you may want to briefly run it through a spice grinder.

There are two things to be cautious of when using lavender. Perhaps more than any other herb, it's powerful stuff, so you only need a tiny pinch to make a big effect. That soapy taste is more than just a psychological connection: Too much can make foods taste waxy and bitter.

The other major concern with lavender is your source. If you're lucky, your farmer's market, a nearby garden or park, or a lavender field will have fresh flowers. If not, you'll probably have to make do with dried, which is fine, given how well lavender takes to drying. The only problem is that much commercially available lavender is grown for potpourri, and the flowers are sprayed with chemicals that taste very bitter, if not toxic. Just make sure your lavender is clearly labeled food grade or pesticide-free and you should be fine.

Where to Find Lavender

A local source for fresh flowers is your best option, but most of us aren't that lucky. Some Middle Eastern spice markets carry it, as do a few craft stores (make sure to check labels there). You can also get it online fairly cheaply. The price per ounce may look high, but you only need tiny amounts. Plus it's such a light herb that an ounce of lavender is a surprisingly large amount.

The Spice House: about $3.50 an ounce
Savory Spice Shop: about $3.50 an ounce
Lavender Wind Farm: about $2.50 an ounce for dried buds, $9.50 for 1/3 ounce of lavender oil

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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