What is mint? (A 30-year cooking veteran asks)


What is mint? Or maybe more accurately: What is “mint”? It’s amazing that after more than 30 years of cooking and writing about food, I still get stumped by the simplest questions. Actually, maybe the most amazing thing isn’t that I’m still getting stumped, but that I’m still surprised when I do.

This last time happened over the weekend when I was at my local nursery (hey there, H&H!), picking up some plants. I stopped by the herb section, intending to buy my summer’s globe basil. The nursery was out of that, but I’ve been intending to plant mint again -- since I’ve been cooking so much out of Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty,” it’s become more of a staple.

And that’s where I got stumped. Because no matter that recipes call for “mint,” there are actually dozens of types. Not only are there spearmint and peppermint, but apple, orange, chocolate, pineapple and ginger mints. And if you go to a specialist, you’ll find even more.


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Just sniffing them, I could tell they weren’t interchangeable. Peppermint has a distinctly spicy odor and a strong mint character. Spearmint seems sweeter and a little more gentle. The named mints all carry traces of apple, orange, chocolate, what have you. One mint does not fit all.

So what does anybody do when faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem these days? I went to social media. On Facebook, within an hour, my query had drawn a couple dozen responses -- everyone from my niece to Paula Wolfert, queen of the Mediterranean.

The best all-around choice seems to be spearmint. But, of course, nothing is that simple. Wolfert likes Egyptian spearmint. Several people recommended a subvariety called Kentucky Colonel, including cookbook writer Nancy Baggett, who commented that it is the “best one for mojitos. (Lots of tasting done to determine this).”

Another cookbook writer, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, called for nepitella. In fact, my last patch of mint was nepitella, carried back from Tuscany by the great Giuliano Bugialli. It had gotten pulled because my wife thought it looked like a weed. In fact, mint does grow kind of like a weed -- you need to be careful to plant it someplace where it will be contained, if not in a pot, at least in a part of the garden where its spread will be limited.

I ended up ordering Kentucky Colonel and regular old spearmint from a website called Fragrant Fields, which seems to make a minor specialty of mint. I’ll let you know how it goes.


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