Mint confusion: spearmint vs. peppermint

Candy canes

Peppermint is a popular holiday flavor - where would we be without candy canes? And spearmint can also be a popular candy flavor  - think gum. Most of us would  regard these two flavors as quite different, yet most recipes just call for "mint." So which type should you use? And which flavor do you get when you buy undifferentiated "mint extract" or fresh mint sold in the produce aisle? Here are a few answers.

What's the difference? Interestingly, two of our usual go-to sources have very different takes. Per the Kitchn, "Spearmint has a sharper flavor and more intense aroma, while peppermint tends to be more delicate and sweet.  Peppermint also contains the chemical menthol. This chemical affects the nerve endings in our mouths and makes our brains think the mouth is cooler than it really is. This is why minty beverages are great to sip while eating spicy foods!"

(The menthol is also why many people consider peppermint as more medicinal and why it's often the mint of choice in aromatherapy.)

But Fine Cooking's take on the subject classifies spearmint as the more gentle herb:

"Spearmint is the most versatile of mints, with a natural affinity with fruits and spring vegetables (think peas, asparagus, and artichokes), herbs like basil and cilantro, and spices like ginger,cumin, and cardamom. Its relatively mild flavor makes it ideal for a variety of savory dishes, including grilled and roasted meats. Spearmint varieties include pineapple mint, with a fragrance of fresh pineapple and a slightly sweeter flavor than regular spearmint; apple mint, with a hint of green apple (try it in iced tea); curly mint, with ruffled leaves; and smooth-leaf mint, with soft, velvety leaves.

Peppermint is similar in flavor to spearmint, but it contains menthol, which gives it a stronger flavor and a cooling sensation on the palate. Peppermint is assertive enough to stand up to strong flavors, so it's ideal for chocolate desserts and boldly flavored dishes. Peppermint varieties include orange mint, with overtones of orange and bergamot; chocolate mint, with an unmistakeable hint of chocolate; ginger mint; and grapefruit mint."

So which to choose? Actually, there's no right answer to this one, it's a matter of personal preference. However, in most cases, at least  in the United States, peppermint is almost always associated with candy and, in some cases, herbal tea. Therefore, peppermint can bring a discordant note to savory dishes.

And when you buy mint at the store or get undifferentiated abstract, it's almost certainly going to be spearmint, which makes it the more commonly used culinary herb and therefore one we're more accustomed to. In Great Britain, spearmint also appears to be used in the same fashion; it certainly is the mint used in classic mint sauce. However, we'd love to hear from our British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand members for more clarification. 

If you'd like to experiment a bit and figure this out on your own, try these two quick and easy recipes sourced from the EYB library, one savory and one sweet and both using fresh mint. Use spearmint and peppermint with each type and see which you like:

Cumin seed roasted cauliflower with salted yogurt, mint, and pomegranate seeds, by Melissa Clark
and
Mango in Ginger-Mint Syrup, by Epicurious

And, of course, we'd love to hear your opinions on the mint debate.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  • Fuzzy Chef  on  12/8/2012 at 1:19 AM

    Lindsay, Peppermint is really only useful for desserty things, but it's probably the better choice of mint for those. But if you're going to put mint in a Greek, Arabic, or Vietnamese main dish or salad, you really want to be using spearamint. I accidentally used peppermint in a Thai salad once because it was the only mint I had, and it ruined it.

  • ellabee  on  12/8/2012 at 11:37 AM

    Spearmint is the mint inside plastic boxes of fresh mint in the supermarket. If you're growing at home, 'Kentucky Colonel' is a variety with the expected taste. There are many cultivars of spearmint, some with a 'doublemint' taste (spearmint and peppermint). Growing from plant starts (cuttings or potted plants) is the only way to get a predictable result. Mints are so hybridized (and cross easily when grown near each other) that starting from seed is as likely to produce flavorless or unpalatable leaves as not.

  • John  on  12/15/2012 at 9:13 PM

    Thanks for this article. It seems to me that in the past five or 10 years, restaurants have stopped giving out what I call peppermints (the red and white, round minty hard candy) and now offer spearmints (green and white hard candy, which doesn't seem to have such intense minty flavor). Do you know why this is? Why did the red ones fall out of favor? Around here, I never see them anymore in restaurants. Is everybody using up all their peppermint to make Christmas candy canes?

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