Naturally Super Sweet Stevia - How to Grow, Harvest, Store & Use Stevia
The Whole Truth About Stevia
Stevia Herb! Stevia is a naturally super-sweet herb native to South America that can add flavor to your beverages and cooking without adding a single calorie! However, not all stevia sweeteners are created equal...
Processed Stevia is Chemically Intensive
Although the stevia plant is entirely green, with green leaves and green stems concentrating the sweetness, store bought stevia is a pure white crystalline substance. To market to American consumers, "stevia" producers decided the closer it looks to the processed sugar we try to avoid, the better it will sell. While they may be correct in terms of profitability, the processed stevia product is laced with dozens of toxic compounds, and you would be better off sticking to the white sugar!
Most store bought stevia begins life in China, where it is grown and harvested, then shipped to the U.S. At the end of a looooong procedure, the plant matter has been so highly processed with chemicals like acetone(!) and methanol(?) among many others, the result is a bright white, crystalline substance that looks a lot like sugar - to help it sell like sugar. After all the processing and chemical additives – you have to wonder if saving those calories is really worth it!
It is worth it to have a natural sweetener that is safe, doesn't raise your blood pressure or insulin levels, contains a variety of ant-oxidants, and is actually good for you. But for these benefits, you need real stevia, not an over-processed imitation sugar. For the surest source of healthy-for-you, naturally sweet, genuine stevia – grow and harvest your own. I'll even show you how to make stevia extract from fresh leaves. It’s easy!
How To Grow Stevia
Stevia is an easy-to-grow herb that is hardy zones 8-11 and will be happy in a container, making it easy to bring it indoors for the winter in cold climates. Provide full sun, well-drained soil and even moisture until the plant is fully established. Once it is, stevia is a low maintenance plant. Read our detailed stevia planting guide here.
Harvesting and Storing Stevia
Stevia leaves may be harvested singly, or by the stem. Be sure to watch for the formation of flower buds to remove them. The sweetest leaves come before the plant blooms, and again in the cooler temps of autumn. Hormonal changes in the plant with flowering can cause the leaves to become a bit bitter, so pinch back any buds that form.
Make the most of your stevia harvest by storing all that wholesome sweetness for future use. There are two main ways to do this - by drying the leaves, or by making a stevia extract.
You can dry individual leaves or entire stems, but only the leaf has the sweetness you want to preserve. This can be done by hanging stems or leaves in bunches, as you would with other herbs. Or remove the leaves from the stems and spread them on a non-metal screen outdoors with plenty of air circulation. A day in the sun should suffice. You can use a food dehydrator, or even an oven on low - 140 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Once your stevia is fully dried, separate the leaves from the stems, and grind the leaves as finely as possible. A mortar and pestle works well, as does a spice grinder or a coffee grinder. The result will be a wonderfully fragrant, green almost-powder. Stevia is green - the white stuff is highly processed with a lot of chemicals you don't want to eat. Feel free to use the freshly ground herb right away, or store it in a dark glass bottle or jar for future use. Ground stevia has an excellent shelf life and will not ferment or mold. Use roughly 1/8 ground stevia to achieve the sweetness of 1 teaspoon of sugar. Adjust to your personal taste. Stevia will withstand cooking, but it does not caramelize nor dissolve like sugar or processed sweeteners. A bit of green herbal residue at the end of a refreshing drink is a nice reminder for some (okay - me) that the drink is garden fresh and healthy. If you prefer to not see this reminder, or you want to use stevia in baking - the extract is the way to sweeten for you. Read on!
Making a Stevia Extract or Tincture
Making an extract will require the use of dried stevia leaves that are only lightly crushed - not ground fine. The following processes will concentrate the sweet flavor and herbal properties of the stevia into a liquid for with either water or alcohol as the carrier.
Making stevia extract is easier than you think. This method extracts the sweetness from the stevia herb and concentrates it in water for future use. Bring 1 cup of water to a near boiling, add 1/2 cup of lightly crushed stevia leaves. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 40 minutes. Strain through cheese cloth or a coffee filter and pour into a sterilized dark colored jar. Store your stevia extract in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. This yields 3/4 cups, equivalent to about 3 cups of sugar. Now you know how to make a stevia extract!
For best and sweetest results, use fresh stevia leaves when making your alcohol based tincture. While the dried leaves will work, then can become a bit bitter in this process. Take 1 cup of fresh, washed stevia leaves, and bruise them slightly by squeezing them in handfuls a few times. Put the leaves into a sterilized glass jar, and cover with 100 proof rum or vodka. Screw the lid on tight, and shake your mixture thoroughly. Place the jar in a cool, dark place for about 36 hours, shaking the jar a few times throughout. For cleanest, sweetest flavor, do not let it steep much longer than 36 hours. Pour and press resulting mix through cheese cloth or a coffee filter into a small sauce pan. It should be a brownish color now. Heat over a slow fire, until steam rises, but do not let it boil! Stir slowly as you heat the mixture. This is causing the alcohol to evaporate and is condensing the flavor into a thin, brown syrup. Continue heating for 15-30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour your home made stevia tincture into a dark bottle and store up to 3 months. Just a few drops will sweeten your tea or smoothies!
Now you are all set to add sweet flavor and health benefits to your life and your family by growing and using your very own stevia. Enjoy!
- Kathleen McCarthy