I’ve grown stevia for a few years, but it is by far the least-used herb in my garden. I regard it with a lot of skepticism. Its attributes seem too good to be true: 300 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories! Safe for diabetics because it’s not metabolized by the body! Maybe my skepticism stems from the fact that I’ve really never needed to come up with another way to sweeten my life—I am rich from a pretty constant supply of honey from my hardworking bees. Since I tend to eat honey and chew on honeycomb by the spoonful whenever I give in to my sweet tooth (often), I probably don’t need to also be adding honey to my coffee, tea, smoothies, and breakfast. So when my neglected stevia plant grew into a small bush this year, I decided it might be time to experiment with this sweet plant.
Stevia has been used to sweeten teas for hundreds of years by native South Americans. It is currently widely used in Japan and Europe, but has been slow to get established in the United States because of intense pressure from the sugarcane industry in the 1970s and ‘80s. Even today, stevia is considered a “dietary aid” by the FDA.
Stevia grows well in the warm months in our climate—it’s native to tropical and subtropical regions of South America—and can sometimes survive our mild winters.
To grow your own stevia, start with welldraining soil. If planting in the ground, be sure to turn over the soil for aeration, and add aged compost if the soil seems compacted and lacks worms. Stevia is well-suited to grow in containers too: just buy a decent potting soil mix and don’t allow the soil to dry out. In the interest of time, start with plants instead of seeds. Stevia grown from seed can sometimes also vary in sweetness. Seedlings are available from Jim Mizell at the Crescent City Farmer’s market, or Urban Roots nursery on Tchoupitoulas St. Water regularly only in the absence of regular rain and watch the sweet herb thrive! The leaves are rumored to be sweetest just before the plant fl owers, but I just prefer to pick stems whole as needed once the plant can spare them (starting when it’s about 12 inches tall), then use the leaves for making extract, drying the leaves for tea, and sometimes using them fresh.
Making Your Own liquid Stevia Extract Start by picking as many stevia leaves as your plant can afford to lose (up to one-third of the plant’s total) and place them in a glass jar with a lid. Pour in enough neutral-fl avored alcohol—vodka or Everclear—to cover the leaves and let sit for a few days, shaking once a day. When you get a chance, pour the liquid into a saucepan through a fi ne-mesh strainer and discard the leaves. Bring the mixture to barely a simmer (don’t boil, or it will add a weird fl avor) and leave on low heat for 20 minutes. Store the extract in a glass jar with a lid for up to 3 months in the refrigerator.
Alcohol is better for refi ning the sweet fl avor from the stevia leaf, but sometimes I use water instead, just in the interest of thrift. If using water, just toss the leaves in a saucepan fi rst instead of the jar, cover with water, then simmer for 20 minutes and strain into a clean jar.
Drying Stevia To dry stevia, pluck the leaves from the stem and spread them on a baking sheet, being careful not to crowd them too close together. Place in the oven on very low heat, about 150. Check on the leaves after 20 minutes and give them a stir if needed. Check again every few minutes until the leaves are barely crisp and slightly brown.
Once the leaves cool, they are ready for use as tea. Empty tea bags are available from Amazon. Simply put a teaspoon of dry leaves in the empty tea bags.
Stevia Sweet Tea
• 1 quart (4 cups) water
• 4 tea bags black tea
• 2 stevia leaf tea bags (or 10 drops of homemade liquid stevia extract )
Bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat, add the tea bags and the stevia tea bags or extract, and let them steep for about 5 minutes. Let cool and serve over ice.
Sun Tea with Fresh Stevia leaves:
Sweet tea with fresh stevia leaves has a slightly more herbal, and sometimes acquired taste, so I add a little mint as well. Take a large glass jar or pitcher and muddle a handful of mint leaves and a handful of stevia leaves with a wooden spoon. Add 6 black tea bags and fi ll with water. Let sit in a sunny spot for about four hours.