One trend, three trailblazers

Three ways with: lemon balm

This versatile herb is best used when freshly picked either as an ingredient or garnish. Three chefs explain how it gives a zesty kick to their dishes.


17 April 2018

The trend

  • Herbalists have traditionally used lemon balm as a stress antidote. The herb can be drunk as a tea when steeped in hot water for a few minutes, which reportedly has a calming effect and is even purported to help with insomnia.
  • Together with angelica and hyssop, lemon balm is one of the main ingredients in French liqueur Benedictine.
  • The Latin name for lemon balm is Melissa officinalis. Melissa was the goddess of bees and honey, and white flowers that appear on the plant at the end of the summer are particularly attractive to bees.

Uncommon herbs, as we have already noted, have been declared a hot trend by the National Restaurant Association, and we are seeing more unusual varieties sprouting on menus.

Lemon balm, a long-time favourite of herbalists, is one that is gaining in popularity in the culinary world.

This leafy green herb, which resembles mint, adds a subtle lemon flavour and fragrance to dishes, with none of the acidity associated with the citrus fruit.

As with lemon, it lends a clean freshness to other ingredients, but because the whole leaf can be used and it has no acidity, it is arguably more flexible. Chefs can add it to milk-based desserts with no fears of curdling, or as a component or garnish to vegetable, fish or meat dishes.

“We find it is extremely versatile across a range of dishes”, says James Mackenzie, chef-proprietor at The Pipe and Glass Inn in Yorkshire. “We use it in a number of ways, including lemon balm posset on our ‘afters’ menu and, freshly picked, as an addition to salads to give a fresh, lemony kick.”

Anyone looking to use lemon balm should also note it is at its best when freshly picked. Thankfully, it is relatively easy to grow and is rarely affected by pests or diseases. Both Mackenzie and Oliver Gladwin – co-owner and head chef at London restaurants Rabbit and The Shed – take advantage of its easy cultivation and grow it themselves to use in their kitchens.

“I would recommend you cut it back every four to five weeks through the summer, to ensure you get regrowth,” suggests Gladwin.


The trailblazers

Oliver Gladwin, co-owner and head chef at Rabbit and The Shed restaurants in London, uses lemon balm in a lemon balm ice cream with candied red currant and baked white chocolate: “To make the ice cream I infuse lemon balm in milk, which gives it a lovely, mellow perfumed flavour, then make the ice cream using a custard base. The red currants are frozen, then rolled in sugar and citric acid. I serve it all together with baked white chocolate. Lemon balm is more perfumed than other lemon flavourings, so it needs to be served with something that's soft and mellow on the palate. I add the red currants to ensure there's a little bite to the dish, while the chocolate adds a bit of a crunch.”


image credit: Tim Green

James Mackenzie, chef-proprietor of The Pipe and Glass Inn in Yorkshire, adds lemon balm in his ale-battered oyster and lemon balm fritters with brown crab mayonnaise: “To make the dish I shuck the oysters and keep the shells, then mix the brown crabmeat with the mayonnaise, some chopped dill and a squeeze of lemon. The batter is made by whisking flour, vinegar and Two Chefs ale together with a little salt, adding a little water if necessary to make a batter that coats the back of a spoon. Chop a generous amount of lemon balm and add to the batter. Next, I pass the oyster through some plain seasoned flour, dip each one into the batter and deep-fry at 180°C until crispy. The lemon balm really complements the oyster and brings a zesty, herby, lemony flavour to the dish.”


James Dugan, executive chef at Mercante in London, adds lemon balm as a garnish to the restaurant's Sicilian pomegranate panna cotta with honey barley and lime Chantilly cream: “I prepare the vanilla panna cotta using cream, sugar, vanilla and gelatine. When set, I extract the juice of fresh Sicilian pomegranates and pour on the top, then leave to set again. The panna cotta is then served with a quenelle of lime Chantilly, micro cress lemon balm and honey barley. I find that the lemon balm imparts a lovely, light herb-y flavour and adds a wonderful texture to the final product. It also creates a subtle balance between the tart and sour taste of pomegranates and the cream and the sweet honey.”

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