Wondering what the difference is between spearmint and peppermint?
It’s a common question. After all, they’re both in the mint family. They look and smell similar, at least at first glance. But these two most iconic mints have a lot of important distinctions. Here’s the main differences between spearmint and peppermint.
Spearmint is on the left, peppermint on the right in the image below.
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Is this Peppermint or Spearmint?
The first step towards understanding the differences between mints and how to use them is being able to reliably identify them! All mints have visual similarities, of course, but here are a few ways to tell peppermint from spearmint.
Peppermint has distinctly purple stems that are very square. Now, other strains of mint can have purplish tints and most mint stems are a bit on the blocky side. But peppermint’s stem is a very saturated shade of purple, and is more squared off.
Spearmint leaves are typically longer and more pointed than peppermint leaves. By contrast, peppermint usually has smaller, rounder leaves, and the veins aren’t as deep set. Having said that, growing conditions and habit can affect the size and development of leaves, so it is possible to have a peppermint plant with larger leaves.
Another big visual difference is the color. Peppermint is usually a deeper shade of green than spearmint. But here again, growing conditions and the health of the plant can affect this.
So how can you tell if a mint is spearmint or peppermint?
First, look for the indicators just mentioned. If you’re still not confident in the identification, crush a leaf from one and sniff it. While all mints carry some of that distinctly minty aroma, peppermint’s scent is far stronger and contains a stronger menthol note. If it smells of camphor, it’s peppermint. If you’re going to sniff test both plants, be sure to give wash your hands in between and give your aroma receptors a few minutes to reset.
Finally, you can tell peppermint from spearmint by taste. Peppermint has a bigger, bolder flavor that packs a big wallop of menthol. It might even make your tongue numb or leave your mouth tingly. If you use peppermint toothpaste, you’ll already have a frame of reference for the distinct taste and feel of fresh peppermint. By contrast, spearmint is a lighter flavored mint and although the flavor is strong, it’s not nearly as overpowering as peppermint.
Should I use spearmint or peppermint?
For some applications, it might simply be enough to add “mint”. Both varieties share similar flavors, after all. But you’re probably not reading an article about the differences between spearmint and peppermint because you want to use them carelessly. So here’s some general guidance to help you know when to use peppermint and when to use spearmint.
First, defer to the recipe, if you’re using one. They will often, though not always, specify.
If the recipe simply calls for mint, here’s what to keep in mind.
- peppermint has a much stronger flavor and a much more pungent aroma. Because of this, it’s more likely to overpower other ingredients. Use peppermint only when peppermint’s super brisk, menthol flavor is the star of the show. For example, many Christmas recipes are based on peppermint’s distinct and dominant flavor.
- if you’re making mint tea, especially as a remedy for an upset stomach, use peppermint. It holds up better to the heat and steeping and peppermint is a powerful stomach soother.
- preparing a cocktail like Mint Julep or a Mojito (or my favorite, the Bourbon Mojito)? Then use spearmint. It’s milder, mellower flavor won’t overpower the rest of the cocktail. Note that there are specific varieties of spearmint that are traditionally used for cocktails. If you’ve got it, use Kentucky Colonel spearmint for juleps and Mojito Mint for mojitos.
- most recipes probably mean spearmint when they simply call for mint, especially if they are savory. By contrast, many dessert recipes use peppermint – the other sweet, rich ingredients will temper the menthol. Think dark chocolate mint brownies or mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Using mint medicinally
Generally, if you are using mint for therapeutic purposes, you should use peppermint. For example, peppermint is commonly used in balms and rubs designed to relieve headaches. It’s also an ingredient in many topical rubs and shower steam disks intended to help nasal congestion. If you are using any herb, including mint, for medicinal purposes, always consult your doctor or an herbalist. This is provided as general information, not medical advice.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. Defer to your own preferences or the recipe in question if you have doubts. Because mint is such a strong flavor, it’s best to add it in small amounts if you can. You an always add more.
Can you use both peppermint and spearmint in the same dish?
Sure. There are some double mint recipes that call for both kinds of mint. Mint tea made with both kinds of mint is lovely. I personally like to add a bit of spearmint to to some dessert recipes to balance the minty flavor and add some brightness. A good rule of thumb is that adding or subbing in spearmint to a recipe that calls for peppermint is generally fine. The reverse is less likely to be true, but a little bit of peppermint can help bring out mint flavor if it’s getting lost in a dish.
Final considerations on peppermint or spearmint
Keep in mind this is all general. The specific variety of spearmint or peppermint you have may dictate how you use it and whether you combine the two. And the freshness and overall quality of the mint matters, too. Super fresh mint you grew yourself is going to taste very different than store bought stuff that’s been in a plastic clamshell for days. Dried mint leaves have lost much of their flavor and nuance, so it can matter less which variety you’re using.
When growing mint, is there a difference between spearmint and peppermint?
Not really. All members of the mint family are prolific growers. Some varieties of mint might grow more upright or sprawl a bit more, but mints generally have the same growing requirements. Namely, plenty of space OR some form of containment, plenty of water and a fair amount of sunlight. Mint doesn’t like to be boggy but it also needs consistent moisture for the best flavor and growth. It wants sun but tends to do best if it’s protected from the sun in the hottest part of the day, at least in very warm areas.
Mint will form flowers, especially if it’s in a very sunny area. Once this happens, the flavor of the leaves changes. It’s best to keep your mint pruned to prevent flowering and help the plant stay compact with flavorful leaves.
If you grow mint in a container, which is recommended if you’re concerned about it taking over, it will need to be split up and replanted every year. Give it a roomy pot with lots of surface area and loose soil. The plant wants to spread and it will get leggy and root bound if left too long in the same pot. When that happens, the leaves become tough and sparse and the flavor is diminished. Many people think their mint has died after the winter but in most cases, the plant is simply too crowded in it’s container and it’s not making new growth.
Mint propagates readily from runners and cuttings. That means it’s very easy to simply dump the plant out of the pot, pull it apart into manageable chunks and replant those chunks. Alternatively, you can take cuttings of the mint and root those, giving you new plants. See How to Propagate Perennial Herbs to learn how to grow fresh new mint plants.
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