DIY Stevia Leaf Uses – Make Syrup and Liquid Extract
Stevia is pretty amazing. With winter frost protection you can grow it just about anywhere, and depending on how you grow it, you can harvest leaf that is 15 times sweeter than sugar. I’d call that a handy food storage item to have around!
In South American countries, this popular herb has been used for thousands of years as a sweetener. The primary ingredient comes from two chemicals, glycosides stevioside and rebaudioside A, that are 40 to 300 times sweeter and sucrose depending on where the plant is grown. (Source New American Herbal by Stephen Orr).
Stevia and its extracts have no calories, few carbohydrates and a glycemic index of zero. It can have a bitter aftertaste so you should introduce it to your palate in small doses until you are used to it. Use the conversion chart and substitute half of the sugar in a recipe with stevia to help your taste buds.
I have a few plants growing in my small garden this year and it’s my intention to preserve as much of it as I can.
Stevia is a tender perennial usually grown as an annual. Here in the south, the plants are perennials and come back as soon as the weather starts to heat up in mid-February.
It is sometimes called sweet leaf, but you can find the right plant at your local nursery by asking for Stevia rebaudiana.
This plant will grow 20 to 30 inches tall and all flower heads should be pinched back until late summer, then the whole plant will be harvested. You can try bringing the remaining plant inside for the winter. Just be sure to protect it from extreme cold weather and don’t overwater while the plant is dormant.
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Stevia Growing Conditions
Type: Tender perennial – usually grown as an annual. To overwinter in zone 7 and below: after harvesting, bring the plant inside the house and water weekly. You can also use a protected garage or greenhouse. Stevia will not survive an extended frost.
Height: 20-30 inches, however, with the right conditions your plant may reach 48-60 inches.
How to grow: From seed or transplant. Plant Stevia seed in late winter. Keep your starts in a sunny windowsill until all danger of frost has passed. Stevia prefers a medium-rich garden soil with compost and full sun. Stevia likes heat, humidity and has average water requirements. It does not like to have “wet feet” so if growing in a container make sure there is room for ample drainage.
Fertilizer Requirements: Stevia plants respond well to organic fertilizers and compost since they release nitrogen slowly. Apply once a year, at the start of spring if the plant is in the ground. If it’s in a plant pot, add 20-30% of peat by volume to the plant pot and fertilize twice a season.
Pests: No serious pest problems for outdoor plants. White fly can become a serious problem on stevia in greenhouses.
You can begin harvesting Stevia leaves in July and to get the best harvest, pinch out early blooms. The main stevia crop is harvested when plants are mature and blooms have just begun to form over the entire plant, generally in late summer.
Sweetness is intensified by cooler temperatures and short days; however, sugar levels decline after flowering. It’s a tradeoff you will have to decide on. I tend to harvest mine before cooler temperatures set in.
Harvested plants are dried with low heat (95-120°) and good air circulation for 24 to 48 hours. A dehydrator could be used for leaf drying, or if you have a lot of stems, plants can be dried in the sun and then threshed to separate the sweet leaves from the bitter stems.
Once dried, whole stevia leaves can be stored for 12 months in air-tight containers or plastic bags. To extend their shelf life, be careful and limit the amount of humidity the leaves are exposed to.
Once the leaves are dry you can crumble them into a fine powder. Use a mesh screen or grind them in a food processor or coffee grinder. Store the powder in an air-tight container.
Make Liquid Extract
Perhaps the easiest way to preserve your stevia leaves is to make an extract. You only need a few ingredients, and a few days to accomplish it. A few drops of stevia extract are as sweet as a teaspoon of sugar.
You will need:
- 1 glass jar with a tight fitting lid
- Dried Stevia leaves. They can be crumbled, chopped or powdered
- Vodka or Rum
Using a ratio of 2 parts stevia to 3 parts liquid, place one cup of stevia in the jar and cover it with 1.5 cups of alcohol. Shake the mixture well and let it sit for no more than 36 hours. (it will become bitter if you steep it longer than 36 hours) Strain through muslin or a coffee filter and pour the tincture into a dark colored bottle. It will keep indefinitely.
To remove the alcohol: once the 36 hours are up, simmer the mixture on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring regularly. Be careful not to boil. When it cools, strain and bottle as above. This mixture should be kept in the refrigerator, where it will store for six months.
Your dry stevia leaves can be used to make a healthy syrup for sweetening beverages, sauces, or even other syrups. A teaspoon of stevia syrup is as sweet as a cup of sugar.
Take 2 cups of warm water and add it to half a cup of dried stevia leaves. Put the mixture in a glass jar and let it steep for 24 hours. Strain the leaves from the mixture.
Cook the strained mixture on low heat, reducing it to a concentrated syrup. The syrup should last for at least a year if kept in an airtight container in your refrigerator.
1 cup of sugar is equal to – 1 teaspoon of stevia leaf powder or 1 teaspoon of stevia extract.
1 tablespoon of sugar is equal to – .25 teaspoon of stevia powder or 6-9 drops of stevia extract.
1 teaspoon of sugar is equal to – a pinch of stevia powder or 2-4 drops of stevia extract.
Stevia is becoming a popular plant and is readily available at most local nurseries. Thankfully it has few pests and is easy to grow and preserve. Now that you know how to use it, will you be adding stevia to your garden this year?