Some of our all-time favorite recipes like Roast Rack of Lamb with Herb Sauce, Mint Julep and Grasshopper Pie include mint (or mint-flavored ingredients). But they call for just that: mint—they don’t specify which kind. And despite the fact that most recipes and even grocery stores refer to mint as if it’s singular herb, there are over 15 types of mint, including spearmint, peppermint, orange mint, apple mint and more. Peppermint and spearmint are the most popular.
Peppermint vs. Spearmint
Although confusing which type of mint (peppermint versus spearmint) to use in your recipe won’t necessarily ruin your creation, there are differences between the two in terms of flavor and uses.
Peppermint is an incredibly pungent—almost spicy—herb. (Its name is starting to seem a bit more fitting, huh?) And though peppermint is perhaps the better known of the two, it’s actually a natural hybrid of spearmint and water mint. This explains why it is so much more potent than its counterpart. Because peppermint is a mix of two types of mint, it contains a higher content of menthol (40% as opposed to spearmint’s 0.5%). Menthol is the chemical ingredient that creates that recognizable and much-loved cooling effect on the mouth.
You might have noticed that peppermint typically only makes a prominent appearance in your grocery aisles during the holidays (bring on the peppermint bark, candy canes and peppermint patties!), but its refreshing flavor is perfect to enjoy year-round—and not even necessarily in the kitchen. Peppermint serves a whole slew of medicinal purposes. It’s known to soothe sore throats and achy muscles, stop runny noses and relieve stress. Its strong flavor is best-suited for sweet dishes, especially those with chocolate, which is why your fondest memories of the mint are probably when it’s crushed on top of a ooey-gooey lava cake or swirled into a heartwarming mug of hot cocoa.
Compared to peppermint, spearmint has a delicate flavor and fragrance that is often described as sweet. It gets its flavor from the chemical ingredient carvone, which is much subtler than the aforementioned menthol and doesn’t evoke the same cooling sensation. Spearmint’s uses are primarily restricted to the culinary and commercial realms (think shaving creams and toothpaste). But it does have some notable healing effects, such as the ability to alleviate nausea and hiccups.
The herb’s most well-known use is in Wrigley’s Extra Spearmint Gum (you know the one!), so it might come as a surprise that in cooking, spearmint is often found in savory recipes—the opposite of peppermint. Whether it’s blended into a tzatziki sauce drizzled over a rack of lamb, carefully folded into a pork- and veggie-packed spring roll or muddled into a refreshing mojito, spearmint is sure to let the dish’s other flavors shine alongside it, which is why it’s a favorite ingredient of many chefs around the world.