Ingredient Intelligence

The Refreshing, Lightly Floral Ingredient That Makes Iced Coffee So Much Better

published Sep 3, 2020
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Cortas Rose water in packaging.
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Rosewater may be a new ingredient to some, but I’m South Asian so it’s a flavor I’ve encountered often in traditional desserts like falooda and kulfi. I’ve always loved the taste because it’s floral without being too candle-like — refreshing and subtly sweet. There are also so many ways to use it in cooking. This summer, for example, I experimented with adding rosewater to all my drinks. A quick splash will elevate any cold beverage into something unique, without overpowering the entire flavor. I can’t say enough about its gorgeous fragrance, which gives any dish a regal quality. If you’re looking to add a little je ne sais quoi to any sweet treat, you must give it a try. 

What Is Rosewater?

True to its name, rosewater is made by steeping rose petals in water to capture the fragrance and essence of its namesake bloom. Iran is the world’s largest rosewater producer and the technique of distilling it was likely developed there more than 2,000 years ago. The petals of the indigenous Damask rose are used for its unrivaled aroma. Because the flavoring is revered across South Asia and the Middle East, you’ll always find it in grocery stores that cater to these cuisines. If you’re looking to buy online, Walmart and Amazon have it (although you can probably also find it at your local market or grocery store). 

Ironically, rosewater was once a common flavoring in America and Europe, a cultural byproduct of the Crusades when Europeans learned of Middle Eastern cuisine. It wasn’t until the 1840s when vanilla, then considered exotic, became more affordable and thus overtook rosewater in popularity. 

Think of rosewater as an essence, like vanilla extract. If you’re new to the taste, experiment with adding a half teaspoon at a time and tasting before adding more. Use it in place of or in addition to vanilla in your favorite desserts for a novel twist. Keep in mind that rosewater is a much milder profile than vanilla. For baked goods, add 1 tablespoon of rosewater in addition to the amount of vanilla called for. Rosewater makes a beautiful finishing touch to fruit compotes, where just a 1/2 teaspoon sprinkled at the end will do. Rosewater also lends itself especially well to no-bake treats like ice cream, puddings, and milkshakes, where you can add a teaspoon (or more to taste). 

Once opened, you can store the shelf-stable ingredient in your pantry for as long as it’s fragrant. If you find there’s no smell or taste, toss it out. But in my experience rosewater lasts a long time.   

Something to note is rosewater also has some applications as a natural beauty product. So, you might see rosewater being sold in a spray bottle. This is not what you want for cooking! For food use, look for a clear glass bottle with a metal screw cap, like this. The ingredient list should be simple — literally water and roses. Rosewater is not to be confused with rose syrup, which typically includes sweeteners and other additives. 

Credit: Lauren Volo

My Favorite Way to Use Rosewater Is in Drinks (Here Are 4 Ways)

Since rosewater is more of an aromatic and less of a bold flavor, it pairs easily with a range of ingredients from dairy to citrus. A friend of mine even adds rosewater to tuna salad to tone down the fishiness while adding delicate sweetness. Here are some of my favorite, albeit less daring ways, to use the ingredient in drinks. 

  • One of the best uses of rosewater is flavoring iced coffee. I mix coffee, milk, and sugar like I normally would, then mix a teaspoon of rosewater before adding ice. The subtle floral note removes the acrid bite and gives the coffee a smooth finish. 
  • Nothing beats a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day. I take it to the next level with a hit of rosewater. For extra aesthetic appeal, I float a few rose petals from the garden (watch out for bugs!) as a garnish. I could see this working equally well with iced tea, too.  
  • Strawberries make a beautiful complement to rosewater. For a fancy mocktail, I blend ripe berries with a teaspoon of rosewater, sugar to taste, lime juice, and mint. Pour the mix over club soda for a twist on agua fresca
  • Rose milk, a traditional South Asian beverage for Ramadan, is especially rejuvenating in hot weather. Blend milk, sugar, and rosewater with a few drops of red food dye to create its signature rosy hue. Top it with basil seeds, which are similar to chia seeds, that are soaked until they become gelatinous, to create a dessert drink similar to boba milk tea. 

What are your favorite ways to use rosewater in the kitchen? Let us know in the comments.