The key is to use a little of this fragrant ingredient—and the results are sublime.

By Amy Sherman
September 30, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Al Wadi

While the heady scent of rose water may bring to mind romance and far-flung destinations, it was actually a very common flavoring in America and Europe until the mid-19th century. Highly aromatic, it can add complexity and depth to your cooking when used carefully, which is why it's a worthy addition to your pantry. Here's what you need to know about what rose water is, where to find it, and how to use it in your cooking and baking.

What Is Rose Water?

Produced as a byproduct of rose essential oil, rose water is a hyrdrosol—or flower water, that's made from the distillation of rose petals. The precious oil is used for perfume and the remaining water has both medicinal and culinary uses. Diana Abu-Jaber, author of culinary memoirs The Language of Baklava ($16.95, amazon.com) and Life Without a Recipe ($13.59, amazon.com), says, "It's an ancient ingredient and it gives Middle Eastern cooking such a distinctive signature: delicate yet unexpected, and that contrast can help to heighten flavors."

The Storied History

Rose water is first mentioned in 1796, in Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, the very first American cookbook. And it's actually featured in more than one recipe: Rose water is called for in recipes for bread pudding, pound cake, apple pie, and gingerbread. It originated in Persia and made its way to Europe during the Middle Ages, thanks to the Crusades which brought flavors of the Middle East to the west. A reason for its popularity in 18th and early 19th century American cooking was that rose water was easily made at home. It was only when the technique for artificially pollinating vanilla was pioneered in the mid 1800s and vanilla extract was produced on a commercial scale, that the now-beloved flavor finally overtook rose water in American baking.

In addition to Middle Eastern cuisine, rose water is now found in the cuisines of North Africa and Northern India, adding an aromatic element in a wide range of sweet and savory dishes. It's used in recipes for lamb, chicken, and beef, often paired with cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, garam masala, saffron, and star anise.

How to Use Rose Water in Your Cooking

While the scent of rose water may be unfamiliar, it's only when too much of it is used that it tastes soapy or perfume-y. The trick is in restraint, says Abu-Jaber, adding that when it's used properly, "It's like a dash from the fairy's wand." If you're using it in place or in addition to vanilla, start with half the amount of vanilla called for in recipes. Try rose water in cakes, ice creams, sorbets or sherbets, and fruit salads in addition to or in the place of vanilla. It also works well in cocktails, baked goods with nuts, and even creamy rice pudding. The rose family includes many fruits—think apples, pears, quinces, loquats, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and almonds—so rose water pairs particularly well with those ingredients. Says Abu-Jaber, "I love just a drop or two of rosewater in the sugar syrup that I pour on baklava. If you can kind of relax and be open to it, rose water is so unique. I feel like it heightens the whole pastry experience."

How to Buy Rose Water

You will find bottles of rose water at specialty retail markets, often in the baking or international section in grocery store, or else online. If you plan to use it for culinary purposes, be sure that "rose water" is the only listed ingredient. It should be clear, and often comes in either an opaque or darkly colored glass bottle to protect it from the light.

How to Store Rose Water

Rose water is shelf stable and does not need to be refrigerated even once opened. Store it in a cool, dry place as you would spices or flavored extracts.

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