Epazote is a flavorful herb indigenous to South America, Central America, and southern Mexico. This unique plant is essential for adding uniquely bitter flavors to a variety of dishes. While a versatile culinary ingredient, epazote can be toxic in high quantities. Read on to learn how to safely incorporate this herb into your cooking.

What is Epazote?

Epazote is a short-lived herb also known as mastruz, Jesuit’s tea, Mexican tea, or payqu. The epazote plant grows nearly 4 feet in height with thin pointed leaves and small green flowers. The leaves of the epazote plant are used for cooking and ideally harvested before the plant goes to seed, much like basil. 

Image Credit: Flickr user watashiwaniCC BY 2.0 )

What Does Epazote Taste Like?

Epazote has a pungent flavor that is similar to oregano or anise seed, but often described as more powerful than these herbs, especially when consumed raw. The smell of epazote is perhaps the most unique facet of this plant and is often described as being similar to turpentine. The flavor of epazote mellows once cooked and is more akin to tarragon or mint. 

Cooking with Epazote

Epazote is used in small quantities to add pungent flavor to a variety of foods. It is most typically paired with black beans, but can also be used to season enchiladas, quesadillas, spoes, moles, tamales, and chilaquiles. Trying adding a teaspoon of minced epazote to the filling in our Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas or to our recipe for Breakfast Enchiladas.

Toxicity of Epazote

In large quantities, epazote can be toxic to humans; in particular the essential oil produced from the epazote plant is highly toxic and can be lethal if consumed. The chemical ascaridole is present in epazote and becomes highly concentrated in epazote essential oil. Luckily, you’d have to ingest more epazote leaves than is physically possible to come close to the amount of ascaridole found in the essential oil, so epazote leaves are perfectly safe to consume. As with anything, the dose makes the toxicity. 

Shopping for Epazote

Epazote can be found in Mexican markets or online in dried form. Finding fresh epazote can prove challenging, but you may be able to find it locally at your garden store or from gardening supply stores online

Feature Image: Flickr user Suzies Farm ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

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Sonja Lewis
Sonja Lewis
2 years ago

20 years ago, I grew epazote, but after smelling the leaves, I knew I’d have to cook just a sampling of beans with them–because the smell was like skunk!! But I’m now reading there’s 2 types of epazote–red, and white. The red variety is notorious for VERY strong and weird odor and taste–so I’m betting the WHITE-LEAFED variety is what people use. Yes, beware of epazote seeds and the “essential oil” obtained from them. As with the popular antique idea of killing your livestock’s worms with nicotine in tobacco, DIY killing of parasites is likely to kill YOU.