Horchata (pronounced or-cha-tah) has always been one of my very favorite aguas frescas, or cooling flavored-water beverages popular in Mexico. It’s typically made by soaking rice with whole-stick cinnamon, blending it, sweetening it, and straining it into a refreshing rice milk. It’s sweet, cold, and creamy—a fantastic accompaniment to hot, spicy tacos.
Although rice, cinnamon, and sugar tend to be horchata constants, there are many variations among Latin countries. As I learned at The Little Mexican Cooking School, the drink originated in Spain and was originally made with tiger nuts (chufas, in Spanish), an influence of the Moors.
It can also be made using sesame seeds, almonds, cashews, coconut milk, vanilla, or jicaro seeds. Many times it is made creamier with the addition of milk or evaporated milk.
The first time I had horchata at home, it was stirred up from a bottled concentrate my dad picked up at our local Fiesta mart. It was quite a big deal to have a full pitcher chilling in our own fridge—I’d always thought of it as a rare treat reserved for trips to get migas for breakfast or tacos al carbon for lunch.
I’ve since graduated from the syrupy stuff, and happily so—it’s wonderfully convenient, but super sugary and unfortunately bottled with chemical preservatives and sometimes fake flavoring. Plus, the real stuff is super easy to make.
I’d always been taught to add some milk after straining, but am not a big milk drinker and so have tried it with many other additions, including soy milk, almond milk, and whole soaked almonds.
Recently, a gal I went to herb school with brought a pitcher to our potluck lunch. I couldn’t get over how light and refreshing it was. I asked her what she used, and her answer was simple—nothing but water. I’ve since begun making it that way, and I have to say it’s perfectly creamy and perfect on a hot day.
You can also try adding some to coffee in the mornings, or spiking it with rum or cream liqueurs. Here’s how to make your own:
- Soak a cup of rice in a quart of distilled water with a two-inch stick of cinnamon overnight. Traditionally, this is done with long-grain white rice, but it’s actually quite nice with brown. Optionally, add nuts, a whole vanilla bean pod or a splash of vanilla extract.
- Pour everything into a blender—water, solids and all. Puree until rice is chopped fine. Strain through cheesecloth into a pitcher.
- Sweeten to taste. This is usually done with sugar, but you can use stevia, Muscovado, or even honey.
- Stir and serve! Keep what you don’t drink in the fridge and enjoy for up to one week.
Horchata tends to separate a bit as it sits, so shake it up or give it a good stir if it’s been a while since you had a glass. Always be sure to pour out an old batch before you start a new one—the bits of rice pulp that make their way into your pitcher will go sour after a while.