An all-natural sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, stevia extract has been used for centuries in many parts of the world.
Stevia is a relative of the sunflower and contains glycosides, which when extracted from the plant, are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, calorie free, stand up well to cooking, and are generally regarded as safe when not refined commercially.
With growing concerns about the safety of artificial sweeteners and about the negative nutritional and environmental impact of sugar, growing and making your own stevia extract may be a preferred way to make a natural flavoring product you can use in cooking, beverages, and anywhere else you might add sugar. Here are some tips to help you grow, dry, extract, and use stevia.
Growing Stevia From Seeds
There are over 250 species of stevia available, but only Stevia rebaudiana is sweet to the taste. You can find stevia seeds online or occasionally at natural food stores; the plants produce few seeds and they can be hard to find. Look for quality organic dark brown or black seeds; seeds that are clear or tan are not viable.
Start your seeds indoors approximately eight weeks before moving them outside. You may also consider purchasing young plants. A small garden bed can accommodate several plants.
Stevia prefers loose, sandy soil and warm temperatures. Unless your garden area is very well drained, consider using raised beds or containers.
Fill them with sandy soil, and if using raised beds or a garden, keep plants about 12 inches apart. When the weather gets very hot, above 90 degrees, consider mulching your plants to help them retain moisture. Keep the soil moist but not wet throughout the growing season.
Stevia is not a strong perennial, and plants will die over winter if they are exposed to frost or cold weather. Many growers recommend replacing plants every few years if they do survive for the highest quality leaves.
How to Dry Stevia Herbs
Once your stevia plants are mature, the next step is to dry the leaves. Dried leaves can be ground into a powder, which imparts a sweet taste to foods, or brewed into a sweet tea, which is especially good with mint leaves.
They can also be used to make stevia extract after they have been dried, which we’ll discuss next.
The stevia plant is mature and the leaves reach peak sweetness in the late summer or early fall, but you can collect and dry the leaves individually at any time.
Shorter days trigger the plant to flower, and you will get the sweetest leaves just before flowering occurs.
Cut the plant’s stalk; leave about six inches if you plan to attempt to overwinter the plant and have it produce more leaves next year.
Hang the cut plants upside down in a warm, dry, drafty place. In a few days, you will be able to brush the leaves from the stems easily with your hands. Discard the stems, as they are not as sweet as the leaves are. If your leaves do not dry within a few days, they will mold, so be sure that you are hanging them in a warm place with good airflow and that you do not hang stems too close together for air to be able to move freely.
How to Make Natural Stevia Extract
Now that you have a large quantity of dried stevia leaves, you can begin the process of making stevia extract.
Making the extract involves getting the sweet glycosides inside the leaves to dissolve into a liquid so that they can be removed from the plant material. You can easily make either water-based or alcohol-based stevia extracts from your dried leaves at home.
To make a water-based extract, you will need two parts water for every one part of dried stevia leaves you use. Heat the water in a pot or saucepan to a simmer, but do not boil. Stir in the leaves and remove the pan from the heat.
Allow the leaves to steep in the water for about 45 minutes, then strain the liquid through a strainer or cheesecloth. This extract should be kept in the refrigerator and used within a few days.
The sweetness will vary based on the maturity of the leaves. Be careful not to overheat your leaves or to leave them in the water too long in hopes of getting a stronger extract; the flavor will rapidly become bitter.
To make an alcohol-based extract, you can use either fresh or dried leaves. Break the leaves up into small pieces and put them in a jar. Cover the leaves with good quality vodka and seal the jar. Let it sit in a cool, dark place for about 48 hours. Again, leaving it too long will not make it sweeter, only bitter. Strain the liquid from the jar into a pan and heat it gently, being careful not to allow it to boil, for about 30 minutes. This will cook off some of the alcohol and concentrate your extract. Finally, strain your liquid into a bottle or jar. This extract can be kept in the refrigerator for several months.
Using Stevia Extract
Once your stevia extract is ready, there are a variety of ways to use it. Perhaps the easiest way to use stevia extract is to sweeten beverages. A few drops serves to sweeten teas, homemade lemonade, and a variety of other drinks with none of the health effects of sugar and artificial sweeteners. You can also use stevia in fruit salads and fruit-based desserts, where its liquid form easily mixes evenly among the ingredients.
Stevia is heat-stable up to 400 degrees, so it can be used with no ill effects in most baking applications. If heated above 400 degrees, it rapidly burns and becomes very bitter, so it should not be used in syrups that are boiled at high temperatures. When baking with stevia, there is some difference between the volume of sugar called for in the recipe and volume of stevia you will use, as well as the way the sweetener interacts with water.
For every cup of sugar the recipe calls for, add 1/3 cup of something like unsweetened applesauce or pumpkin to add liquid and bulk to the ingredients. You may have to taste and adjust the amount of stevia extract based on the sweetness of your individual batch.
Stevia is easy to grow once you get your seeds started, and drying your plants and making your own extract can be fun and rewarding. Your product is all-natural, organic, and much less expensive than the store-bought variety. With a little effort, you can have a healthy, natural sugar alternative in no time at all.