Culinary Arts

What Is Lemongrass? An Essential Guide to Lemongrass

Written by MasterClass

May 1, 2019 • 4 min read

At first glance, the woody stalks of lemongrass look intimidating to cook with, but it only takes a little crushing of the stalk to release a fragrant, citrusy aroma that is the key to balancing complex flavors in Asian cuisine. It’s the subtle lemon-floral flavor that has your taste buds singing in Thai curries and Vietnamese dishes.

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What Is lemongrass?

Lemongrass is a perennial grass (surprisingly not related to the lemon tree) that grows in tropical climates. The tall stalks grow in clusters and can reach six to ten feet in height. The tender, white core of the stalk is desired for its distinct citrus flavor and is a common ingredient in Thai, Indian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cooking.

How Is Lemongrass Used in Cooking?

Lemongrass is used in multiple ways:

  • Added to curry pastes, sauces, and salads. Its lemony flavor stands up to prolonged cooking, making it perfect for slow cooked stews and curries.
  • Infused into teas, soups, and stocks. Lemongrass easily infuses into liquids.
  • Added to desserts. In modern cooking, lemongrass is often used in a variety of desserts ranging from cakes and cookies to custards and frozen treats.

What Does Lemongrass Look and Taste Like?

Lemongrass is easy to identify by its pale yellow-green stalks and aromatic citrus scent. It has a resemblance to green onions, with a bulbous bottom but has woody, tough stalks. The flavor of this citrusy herb is a unique blend of tart lemon with the brightness of mint. When used in cooking, the flavor lifts the dish without overpowering other ingredients.

How to Buy Lemongrass

You’ll commonly find lemongrass tied up in neat little bundles in the produce aisle of Asian grocery stores, although you may find it in specialty and health food stores as well. Your best bet will be the Asian markets as supply and demand for the herb is higher and they tend to carry the freshest stock.

When shopping for lemongrass, look for firm, heavy stalks that are pale yellow with green tips. Stay away from lemongrass that is soft or dried up with brown outer leaves, these will not give as much flavor. If you don’t plan on using all the lemongrass right away, the stalks can be wrapped tightly in plastic and stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks or in the freezer for up to six months.

How to Trim and Prepare Lemongrass

There are several ways to prepare lemongrass, but the first step is to trim the spiky top and base, removing the papery husks until you’re left with the tender white heart of the stalk.

From this point, there are 3 different ways to use the stalks:

  • To make infusions, cut the stalks into 3-inch pieces (for easier removal), discarding any dried ends. Bruise the stalk by gently smashing it under the side of a chef’s knife. This can then be used to infuse teas, broths, soups, and braising liquids. Once you’re done cooking, fish out and discard the stalks before serving as you would when cooking with a bay leaf. This technique will release the essential oils from the lemongrass without leaving fibrous hard-to-chew bits in the finished dish. Your diners will thank you!
  • To mince lemongrass, slice the stalk thinly crosswise, then chop through the slices until finely diced. This can be used for marinades, stir-fries, salads, spice rubs, and curry pastes. Lemongrass does well when simmered low and slow, and gains intensity the longer it’s cooked. For bold flavor, add lemongrass at the start of cooking, sautéing it with other aromatics. For a light and delicate flavor, add it closer to the end of cooking.
  • To make lemongrass paste, slice stalk thinly crosswise, then pound the slices using a mortar and pestle. Continue grinding until the lemongrass is well ground and fragrant, adding 1-2 tablespoons of water if needed. For an extra flavor boost, throw in a few cloves of garlic and knob of ginger while grinding and form into a smooth paste. Add the finished paste to the dish you are cooking or store covered in the fridge for up to 2 days. An advantage to using ground lemongrass is that it doesn’t need to be removed after cooking. While this method is more labor intensive, it releases the most flavor and natural oils to the finished dish.

What Are the Culinary Uses of Lemongrass?

This citrusy herb is prized in Southeast Asian cuisine and also known for its healing powers as a medicinal herb in India. Packed with a zing of citrus flavor, lemongrass can be dried for a prolonged shelf life or used fresh. It’s best known for its use in curries, soups, and herbal teas. Its versatility makes it easy to pair with chicken, beef, tofu, and seafood dishes.

In India, this superfood is considered to be an essential plant in Ayurvedic medicine. For those looking for an added dose of wellness, lemongrass brewed into an uplifting herbal tea has been touted for centuries to promote healthy digestion at the end of a meal. Next time you’re coming down with a cold, try lemongrass tea along with a few slices of ginger as a natural cold remedy.

8 Lemongrass Recipe Ideas

  1. Chicken and Lemongrass Larb
  2. Tom Kha Gai
  3. Lemongrass and Ginger Iced Tea
  4. Vietnamese Rice Noodles with Lemongrass Shrimp
  5. Curry Lemongrass Soup
  6. Vietnamese Pork Lemongrass Skewers
  7. Lemongrass Coconut Ice Cream
  8. Lemongrass Sago Pudding