Epazote Leaves: A Guide to Kitchen Uses

Epazote Leaves: A Guide to Kitchen Uses

What is Epazote?

Epazote leaves refer to the leafy parts of epazote; a herbaceous plant that is native to Mexico. Based on different geographical locations, the plant is also known as pigweed, American goosefoot, Indian worm weed, Jerusalem parsley, Mexican tea, Californian Spearmint, skunk weed, hedge mustard, piaco and blue bush. The scientific name for epazote is Dysphania ambrosioides (previously known as chenopodium ambrosioides).

The word epazote originates from a variety of Nahautl language(s) words that are used to describe a rancid odor. Nahautl is the language spoken by the Aztec people and some of their neighboring communities in Mexico. Epazote is originally pronounced as eh-pah-soh-teh.

The epazote plant features green and purple varieties. The green epazote is characterized by rich green color throughout the entire plant whereas the purple one has leaves that are predominantly purple in color. The two can be used interchangeably because they have striking similarities in both flavor and aroma.

Other notable features of epazote are its long serrated leaves, a rank or ‘skunk sweat’ pungent that some people find dismissive or irritating and small green flowers and seeds. The leaves at the lower parts of a stem are the largest and all leaves become progressively smaller as you move up towards the tip of the stem.

The rank scent is dominant throughout the entire plant. The green flowers feature bits of pale yellow color and the seeds change to a dark color as they dry up. The flowers manifest a purple color in the purple variety. Epazote grows to approximately 1 meter in height (3-4 feet).

Although epazote is domesticated in many parts globally, it grows widely in the wild across Mexico and other countries in Central and South America. It is shrubby in nature and invasive because it spreads quickly like weeds. Its seeds germinate easily even where soils are infertile and poorly drained.

How to Use Epazote Leaves

Although epazote leaves are not widely popularized in many countries, they play an integral role in Mexican cuisine. Their culinary benefits stem from the vast use of the plant in ancient Aztec medicine. Epazote was recognized for its distinguished abilities in flatulence control, intestinal parasites elimination and metabolism improvement among other benefits.

Since beans are associated with gas issues, epazote sprigs are traditionally added to beans recipes to ease gas effects. Today, the culinary uses of epazote leaves extend beyond this function. Fresh epazote is used in quesadillas, salsas, tamales and long-simmered stews and soups.

Dried epazote leaves are also used in cooking but they are excellent for medicinal tea. Epazote leaves have a bitter, lemony flavor and should be used in well controlled portions in recipes. It is important to note that epazote is poisonous when consumed in large quantities.

Epazote pairs well with black beans, pinto beans, shellfish, mushrooms, chayote, eggs, pork, peas and chicken. Some of its pairings for herbs and spices include cumin, oregano, a wide variety of peppers, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, parsley and cilantro.

Fresh Epazote should be added to dishes at the end of cooking because its taste and scent can be lost through extreme heating. Young sprigs and leaves have the best flavor and aroma. Dried leaves have a concentrated flavor and can be subjected to long periods of cooking.

Epazote has a unique flavor that is difficult to substitute. However, Mexican oregano and cilantro are commonly used together to achieve an almost similar taste.

How to Store Epazote

Epazote is stored in both fresh and dried forms. Fresh epazote begins to wilt after a few days of harvesting. It should be kept frozen to retain its freshness or dried for long-term storage.  Freeze epazote by chopping clean leaves to small pieces and transferring them into ice trays. Add water to the trays and store in the freezer to form ice cubes.

Transfer the ice cubes into a zip lock or an airtight container and store appropriately. Add enough ice cubes to your recipes during cooking. They will melt and release the fresh herb into your food. Alternatively, you can remove enough ice cubes from freezer 30 minutes before cooking and allow them to melt so that they can release the leaves.

To dry epazote leaves, harvest dew-free young sprigs and use a string to tie them in small bundles. Hang them in a well aerated room and let them dry naturally. Check after every one or two days to monitor the progress. Do not expose them to direct sunlight because they will lose their flavor and aroma. Once the leaves are completely dry, separate them from the stems and transfer them to an airtight container. Place the container in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight.

Frequently asked Questions (FAQ)

What is epazote?

Epazote is a herb that is native to Mexico and widely spread throughout South America. The herb primarily grows in the wild because of its invasive nature.  

What is epazote in English? What does epazote mean in English?

 Some of the most common English names for epazote include pigweed, American goosefoot, Mexican tea, Californian Spearmint and skunk weed. The term epazote is a Nahautl language description for a rank smell.

Where can I buy epazote?

In countries where epazote grows, it is easy to find freshly cut sprigs in most grocery stores. In a country like the United States, epazote is mostly sold in dried forms. Try to look for dried epazote leaves in online stores or nearby groceries.

What does epazote taste like?

 Epazote has a bitter lemony flavor and should be used as required in recipes.

How can I make epazote tea?

Boil water and add a few sprigs or leaves of epazote. Let boil for about three minutes and remove from heat. Strain and serve immediately.  

What is epazote good for?

 Epazote is an excellent remedy for flatulence issues. This explains its popularity in black and pinto beans recipes.

How can I use epazote?

 You can use epazote to make herbal tea and in beans, mushroom, peas, quesadillas, salsas, tamales and long-simmered stews and soups.

What is a good substitute for epazote? Is Mexican oregano the same as epizote?

Mexican oregano and epazote are two different herbs. However, the former is combined with cilantro to substitute epazote. The combination does not give the exact flavor of epazote but a close one.

Can you eat epazote? How much epazote is poisonous?

Epazote is an edible herb but it should be consumed in moderation because large quantities can be poisonous. The leaves have numerous health benefits that strengthen the immune and digestive systems.

Does epazote reduce gas?

The chemical composition of epazote is rich in carminative properties that help with flatulence issues. This prevents bloating by enabling the body to expel excess gas. The carminative ability of epazote is attributed to its use in black and pinto beans recipes. Beans are infamous for causing gas because they contain complex sugars that are poorly absorbed in the body. 

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