Q&A: Sweeten Up with Stevia

Many folks have mentioned that this is their first summer growing stevia, a wonderful alternative sweetener that’s a nice complement to homegrown berries and other produce. There are so many views on harvesting, drying and use that I went to our expert on organic gardening, Karen Geiser, and she shared how she and her family use their homegrown stevia. —Editor

Healthy stevia plant.

Q: Karen, when did you and your family start using stevia?
A: Ten years ago we stopped using white sugar in an attempt to alleviate my husband’s allergies. It worked and we’ve been using alternative sweeteners ever since. We use molasses, honey, some sucanat and stevia (fresh, dried and the boughten white powder.) If we eat away, he knows almost instantly if he ate something with white sugar in it.

Q: How long have you been growing stevia?
I started growing stevia plants about 6 years ago. Now I try to grow about a dozen plants each year for fresh use and drying. We plant them in the spring after danger of frost (mid-May in Kidron, Ohio) and I usually wait to start using the leaves till mid or late June. Early on, the sweetness isn’t as concentrated and I would say July and August is when the flavor is at its peak. The leaves have a slight licorice flavor which blends well in teas. (I know there are some people who just don’t care for the flavor.)

Q: How do you use stevia in drinks?
When I make iced tea, I boil a gallon of water and gather a handful of mint (12-15 sprigs?), a couple stinging nettle sprigs for the nutrients and maybe 2-3 four inch pieces of stevia plant. Toss everything in the water and turn off the heat. Cover and let steep 20 minutes or more. Strain and chill.

Row of stevia
Stevia ready for harvest. Note the well-mulched rows, essential for keeping the roots moist. Stevia flourishes in full sun, in well-drained, moist loamy soil.

Q:Tell me how you harvest and preserve stevia for use.
Come August, when the plants are really bushy, I gather branches for dehydrating. The plant regrows and I gather another batch in September before they start to flower. These are used to sweeten our winter teas.

Q: Do you treat your stevia as an annual or a perennial? Here in our area of North Central Ohio, winter can be pretty harsh.
Once October comes, I cut the woody branches all the way back, pot up the plants into nursery pots and put them in the cellar to stay dormant over the winter months. I water once a month (if I remember) and then bring them up to the light in March and they start regrowing from the roots.

Karen’s freshly brewed herbal tea and her organic dried stevia.

Q: Once you have your stevia harvested, what happens next?
We use stevia frequently in teas, both in summer and winter, and on fruit, things like that. I’ve made fine green powder with our freshly dried leaves and attempted to use it in baking but that was just too weird for my family. So when I use stevia for baking or sweetening yogurt I use the white powder.

I know there are also recipes for making a syrup…When I do use the powder in baking I only use a portion and also include molasses or sucanat so things will brown well.
Stevia is best grown from starts. Although Karen grows hers in the garden, stevia can be grown in large pots, like a patio plant. It loves sunlight, and needs to be fairly moist, in well-mulched soil. Contact your local herb nursery, and see if any stevia is still available. With care, you can keep it growing through the first frost, especially as a potted plant.

Drying and Crushing Dried Stevia
Once you’ve harvested your stevia leaves, you need to dry them. There are many ways to dry stevia (and other herbs), but the simplest way is to scatter the leaves in a single layer on a tray or cookie sheet. Top with a screen or cheesecloth to keep the bugs from landing on your leaves. Place the leaves in a sunny spot on your porch and let dry until the leaves crumble to the touch. It can take up to 12 hours. Stevia can be oven-dried too. It’s simplest in gas ovens with pilot lights. Again, put the leaves on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Pop into the oven, and leave overnight until the leaves crumble to the touch. You can also use a food dehydrator. Follow the directions for drying leafy herbs.

For best use, dried stevia should be pulverized into a fine powder. Place a handful of dried leaves into a coffee grinder or herb grinder, and whirl until powdered. Store in air-tight container.

stevia leaf
Close-up of stevia leaf. Note the fine hairs on the leaf. Be sure to brush off any soil before drying. The hairs disappear with drying.

A Final Word…
Homegrown stevia isn’t as sweet as the store-bought powder, so be prepared to experiment with your stevia until you have the desired level of sweetness. Use the homegrown powdered leaves to top fruit and berries, in hot and cold drinks, or as a topping where you would normally use powdered sugar.

The cooler the weather when you harvest, the sweeter your stevia will be. Keep this in mind, and label your harvested, processed batches accordingly.

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