Lemongrass, a stiff grass native to India, is widely used as a herb in Asian cuisine. Evergreen in warm climates, lemongrass is a sharp-bladed, perennial, blue-green grass that grows in 3- to 6-foot-tall cascading clumps.
This citrusy plant plays a starring role in many Southeast-Asian cuisines, adding its unique flavor to everything from curries to cold drinks. Not long ago, it was nearly impossible to find, except in Asian markets. But these days, lemongrass is going mainstream, making its way into the produce section of your supermarket.
In addition to its uses in the kitchen, it’s valued medicinally as a remedy for a wide range of ailments, from stomach troubles and fever to depression. As the name suggests, it has a citrus aroma and lemony flavor. It can be dried and powdered, or used fresh.
Much of lemongrass’s flavor is concentrated in its lower, cane-like stalks, which is why most markets sell them already trimmed of their leafy tops, leaving just a few short, spiky blades still attached. Look for firm, pale-green stalks with fat, bulbous bottoms and reasonably fresh-looking tops (they may be a little dry but shouldn’t be desiccated or yellowed).
There are two main ways to cook with lemongrass, and each determines how you handle it. To infuse teas, broths, soups, and braising liquids, trim off the spiky tops and the bases, crush the stalks with the side of a knife to release their aromatic oils, and then cut them into 1- or 2-inch pieces. Remove the pieces before eating (they tend to be woody) or eat around them.
To use lemongrass in marinades, stir-fries, salads, spice rubs, and curry pastes, trim the top and base of the stalks—you want to use only the bottom 4 inches or so. Then peel off any dry or tough outer layers before finely chopping or mincing. Lemongrass holds up to long cooking and gains intensity the longer it’s cooked. If you’d like a strong lemongrass flavor, add minced lemongrass at the start of cooking, browning it along with the other aromatics. For a lighter, fresher lemongrass flavor, add it near the end of cooking.
Though lemongrass stalks measure a foot long or more, almost all of the flavor is contained in the bottom 5 inches or so of the stalk. To get to that flavor, cut away the thinner top portion of the stalk and the very woody base. Then peel away the tougher outer layers to get to the more tender part of the stalk. (You can use all these scraps to make a soothing herbal tea; steep them in boiling water for 5 minutes, then strain.) Even after peeling, lemongrass is quite fibrous, and it’s best to either use it whole to infuse flavor and then remove it, or chop it very finely. To make chopping it easier, use a sharp knife and slice it into thin rounds first.
To store, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for two to three weeks, or freeze for up to six months.