Spice Hunting: Orange Blossom Water

A bottle of orange blossom water with an orange next to it.
Photographs: Max Falkowitz

It's fascinating to see which spices and seasonings one cuisine adopts from another—but I'm more interested in those they leave behind. Why, for example, have we imported nutmeg from the Middle Ages, but not mace? Why are we so enamored of cardamom but not its smoky black counterpart? The answer to why some ingredients don't make the cut are often riddles of history, economics, and the whims of traders, merchants, and tastemakers. Which is an elaborate way of saying that I don't know why Americans haven't glommed on to orange blossom water while rose water and rose petals line more shelves and pastry counters. I'm just glad it's here now.

Orange blossom water is near and dear to two cuisines Americans take kindly to: French and Middle Eastern. Prized in Persian imperial courts for its cosmetic perfume, supposed medicinal qualities, and culinary potential, orange blossom water was bandied about the Middle East and Mediterranean, landing in delicate sweets, artfully spiced savory dishes, and any less-than-palatable drinking water that needed some covering up. Nowadays, its fruity, floral kiss is mostly reserved to the realm of desserts, but that's hardly a limitation.

What is Orange Blossom Water?

Orange blossom water is exactly what it sounds like: water distilled with the essence of flowers from orange trees. Specifically, bitter oranges, a variety we don't see much of in the States. Flower petals are gently boiled in water, and the aromatic steam is captured and condensed into a catch, producing an almost clear, highly fragrant, and gently flavored liquid. The process—which is the same way rose water is made—is easy to industrialize, so yesterday's perfume of emperors is easily affordable for today's cook.

"A wee dash of it gives food (and cocktails) an almost otherworldly quality."

To the uninitiated, orange blossom water's flavor is a surprise. It transports the clean brightness of orange groves to a field of wildflowers on a muggy day. The finish on the tongue is pleasantly bitter, much like chewing on orange peel. Okay, so it kind of smells like old lady perfume. But those blue-hairs are on to something. A wee dash of it gives food (and cocktails) an almost otherworldly quality.

How to Use Orange Blossom Water

Orange blossom water is deceptively powerful. While its overall flavor isn't quite as deep as high-quality vanilla extracts (the lack of alcohol seems to make its flavor penetrate food differently), its bitterness is, so use it with caution lest it overwhelm all other ingredients. While vanilla is happy to blend in with other flavors, orange blossom floats atop them. It's the first thing you taste when you bite into something, and its aftertaste is one of the last.

This isn't to say it doesn't play nice with others. Nuts (especially walnuts and pistachios), sweet spices (such as cinnamon, cloves, and anise), semolina, coconut, rose, honey, and cream are only a few of its welcome pairings. Orange blossom water disperses especially well in syrups and cake-like pastries, such as madeleines, muffins, and cookies. Since it's first made through steam, its flavor carries well in the steamy environment of a rising cake. The French are fond of it in puff pastry for much the same reason, as well as in gibassiers, cake-like cookies flavored with candied orange peel and anise seed, then dusted with fine sugar. (Which makes me want to try them in Chichi's amazing lard- and anise-based biscochitos.) It's also delicious in meringue applications, especially pavlovas.

Orange blossom water and puff pastry are best friends, especially when joined by nuts, dried fruit, honey, and sweet spices.

I like orange blossom water most in sweet, sticky pastries like baklava and syrup-soaked basboosa. The water's bitterness cuts through all the sugar nicely, and the fragrance tickles the nose through layers of spices, dried fruits, nuts, flaky pastry, and moist crumbs.

Orange blossom water works well most places rose water does, and you can use them more or less interchangeably. If you're looking to introduce orange blossom water into a recipe from scratch, start with a 1/2 teaspoon and take it from there. The flavor is different enough from orange zest that I wouldn't suggest substituting them for each other, but if you wanted to, a teaspoon of orange blossom water will roughly replace a teaspoon or orange zest.

Where to Find Orange Blossom Water

Cortas is my brand of choice, widely available but none the worse for it. Orange blossom water can be found next to rose water in Middle Eastern aisles of supermarkets, speciality import shops, and of course on the internet.