With the holidays here you can be sure of one thing — mint, mint, mint, and more mint. Peppermint is practically the poster child for the entire winter season, with candy canes, peppermint patties, peppermint bark, and peppermint flavored hot chocolate. Peppermint might steal the show, but actually, there are over 15 types of mint including orange mint, apple mint, and of course, spearmint. Peppermint and spearmint are, by far, the most popular.
Peppermint vs. Spearmint
So, are the two interchangeable?
Well, all mints are not the same. You’re likely to notice right away if someone switches the spearmint in your mojito with peppermint or if your barista were to replace the peppermint in your mocha with spearmint. That’s not saying they wouldn’t be good — just noticeably different.
From a botanical perspective, both have square stems and spear-shaped leaves, and both are great for cooking, but the two have distinct difference in terms of flavor and uses.
So what makes them different?
Peppermint (also known as Mentha Balsamea Wild) belongs to the Menthe genus and the Piperita species. It’s a hybrid between spearmint and watermint indigenous to Europe and the Middle East.
Peppermint contains a much higher level of the chemical ingredient menthol (40 percent) that creates the instantly recognizable cooling effect on the mouth or on the skin. Because of this quality, peppermint is used for a whole slew of medicinal purposes including relaxing muscles or soothing sore throats.
But it’s also a delicious accompaniment to chocolatey desserts, so you’ll see it, particularly around the holidays, paired with chocolate in hot chocolate, cakes, cupcakes, cannoli and just about anything sweet.
Spearmint, also part of the Mentha genus, is part of the Spicata species and is not a hybrid. Compared to peppermint, spearmint has a delicate, almost sweet flavor that comes from the chemical ingredient carvone, which is much subtler than menthol (0.5 percent). Because of the low menthol, spearmint also has a much weaker cooling effect.
Spearmint pairs best with savory dishes. You’ll often see it with lamb, pork, or vegetables. It’s a great addition to teas as well as cocktails (like mojitos and mint juleps).
Like peppermint, spearmint is used for medicinal purposes like alleviating nausea and hiccups. It also works as a natural mosquito repellent.
The two mints can be interchangeable, but because of peppermint’s concentrated flavor, you’re likely to find it in dessert recipes that prominently feature the flavor, whereas spearmint is more commonly used as an accompaniment.
So the next time you’re following a recipe that calls for mint, but doesn’t specify what kind, consider what type of recipe. A rule of thumb: Peppermint for sweet and spearmint for savory.