steviaIf growing your own calorie-free, natural sweetener sounds too good to be true, it’s time to get to know stevia. Native to Paraguay and other tropical areas of the Americas, the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) produces leaves packed with super-sweet compounds that remain stable even after the leaves have been dried. Stevia leaves have been used to sweeten teas and beverages throughout South America for centuries. More recently, diabetics and dieters alike have turned to stevia to reduce their sugar intake because, unlike honey, maple syrup, agave or molasses, this natural sweetener has zero calories and is not metabolized by the body. Stevia is especially well-suited to sweetening drinks, fruits, salad dressings, yogurt and most creamy desserts. Stevia can substitute for some, but not all, of the sugar used when baking, because it does not provide all of the multiple functions that sugar does.

Growing Stevia Plants

Growing stevia is easy in well-drained beds or large containers, and the leaves can be dried for winter use like any other herb. Stevia grows best in warm conditions similar to those preferred by basil. Plants grown in warm climates will grow to 24 inches tall and wide. Where summers are cool, expect stevia plants to grow up to 16 inches. Choose a well-drained site, and set out the plants 2 feet apart after your last frost. Be sure to choose an accessible spot, because you will need to gather stems often. Where summers are extremely hot, stevia benefits from slight afternoon shade. Elsewhere, grow stevia in full sun. Left unpruned, stevia will grow into a lanky, upright plant that produces tiny white flowers in late summer. To maximize leaf production, you must trim back the plants several times to induce branching, first when plants are about 8 inches tall, and again in early summer.

How to Harvest Stevia In most areas, you can harvest stevia in midsummer by cutting back the plants by half their size, and again in early fall when new growth slows to a standstill. Stevia can be dried in bunches like other herbs, but you will get better quality by drying it in a dehydrator or a 150-degree- Fahrenheit oven until crisp. Store dried stevia leaves in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Wait until you’re ready to use stevia leaves to crush them.

In the Kitchen You can use the leaves of this healthy sugar substitute fresh or dried, but many people find the flavor improves if the sweet compounds have first been extracted in water or alcohol. With stevia, slightly under-sweetening drinks or fruit desserts tends to taste better than using too much. Too much stevia may impart a bitter or medicinal flavor. Learn how to use stevia leaves as a versatile, low-calorie sugar substitute with the methods below…

Stevia Tea… Fill a metal tea ball with 1 rounded tablespoon of dried, lightly crushed stevia leaves. Place in a clean pint canning jar, and cover with almost-boiling water. Steep 10 minutes before removing the stevia. Screw on the lid and keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Yield: 2 cups (16 ounces), sweetness equivalent to about 2 cups sugar.

Stevia Extract… Bring 1 cup water to almost-boiling, add one-half cup lightly crushed stevia leaves. Remove from heat, cover with lid, and steep 40 minutes. Strain through a coffee filter, and pour into a dark-colored container. Store in the refrigerator 1 to 2 weeks. Yield: 3/4 cup (6 ounces), equivalent to 3 cups sugar.

Stevia Tincture… Place one-half cup dried, lightly crushed stevia leaves in a clean glass jar. Add 3/4 cup 100-proof vodka or rum. Screw on the lid and shake. Place in a cool, dark place for two days, shaking the jar twice a day. Strain through cheesecloth or a jelly bag, and place the liquid in a small saucepan. Heat on low until steam rises, and maintain that temperature for 20 to 30 minutes, (do not boil). This creates a more concentrated tincture while removing most of the alcohol’s taste and smell. Pour the cooled tincture into a dark-colored container such as a medicine bottle with a dropper to add it to drinks or prepared dishes by the drop. Store in the refrigerator up to 3 months. Yield: About 1/4 cup (2 ounces), equivalent to 6 cups sugar.


Information gathered from… Mother Earth News  and Consider Me Fit.

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