Ask Peter: Orange and rose waters
I’ve had some lovely dishes flavoured with rose water and orange water. But I’ve had some disasters cooking with them at home. I substituted fresh squeezed orange juice for orange water in a vege salad and it was too strong. Can you give me some tips on cooking with them. Claudia
It’s worth pointing out that orange juice and orange (blossom) water have nothing in common apart from the fact that they come from the orange tree. But bear in mind that not all orange trees and varieties will produce flowers that will produce an aroma considered suitable for distillation into orange water, just as some orange trees don’t produce great tasting fruit.
Orange blossom water is used to scent things both edible and not, and to add a rather earthy but also highly perfumed character to whatever it’s used for. Orange water is made by distilling thousands upon thousands of freshly picked orange blossoms and slowly extracting their aroma into a highly concentrated liquid. This is then used in perfumes, room fresheners, hand creams and also in cooking — mainly Middle Eastern and southern Mediterranean dishes.
Orange juice is, obviously, the juice from the fruit that formed when the blossoms were fertilised. Orange zest will give you a lovely orange aroma, but in reality it is far removed from the aroma of orange water.
Rose water is made in pretty much the same way as orange water. Rose petals are harvested before sunrise and slowly distilled, extracting their incredibly scarce essential oils. This then becomes a liquid that is used in the same ways as orange water.
If you’ve ever read the book Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, you’ll know that it’s a very long and precise process to get these essences and extracts, and that they are also extremely expensive — those made from rose more so.
So, it’s not at all surprising that when you’ve tried to substitute OJ for orange water you haven’t met with huge success. OJ is a sweet and sour tasting liquid of little concentration and with barely any aroma. Replacing this with orange water will turn whatever it is you’re making into a highly perfumed, slightly medicinal creation.
Vice versa, replacing orange water with OJ will simply make it damp with barely any orange characteristics. More success would be had by replacing orange water with the equally concentrated rose water.
Both waters work well brushed on freshly baked shortbread and other flaky biscuits straight from the oven as the moisture is sucked into the biscuit, but as it cools it evaporates, leaving the aromas intact and the biscuit dry. On plain biscuits both aromas work well, but with other recipes it doesn’t always give the desired result.
Orange water will be lovely along with a light olive oil, a squeeze of orange juice and a smidgen of runny honey in a salad dressing drizzled over ricotta and roast baby beets with toasted almonds. Using rose water here would in a lllikelihood be a little overbearing.
Use rose water in the same way to dress a salad of freekeh, toasted pistachios, and roast apricots and you’ll have success.
Both waters go well mixed into whipped sweetened cream and used on meringues and other desserts, and perhaps not surprisingly orange water goes well with anything using oranges — such as thinly sliced peeled oranges soaked in warm sugar syrup that has orange water and cinnamon added.
Rose water is terrific in a trifle, mixed into warm sugar syrup and used to soak stale cake, but actually orange water works well here too, mixed into the custard with some grated orange zest. Next time you make a banana or mango smoothie try adding a little of either to it.
I guess my best bit of advice is to treat both floral waters delicately. They are both powerful flavours and if used too generously can become overbearing and give the finished dish medicinal rather than floral characteristics.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.