The culinary use of flowers dates back thousands of years to the Chinese, Greek and Romans. Many cultures use flowers in their traditional cooking—think of squash blossoms in Italian food and rose petals in Indian food. At least one medieval feast used marigolds to season the venison, and violets mingled with onion in the salad—making that long-ago meal sound quite modern!
Adding flowers to your food can be a nice way to add color, flavor and a little whimsy. Some are spicy, some herbal, while others are floral and fragrant. The range is surprising.
Flowers can be eaten as a main dish or be incorporated into salads. They can be added to beverages or ice cubes, or infused to make cocktails and wines. They are added to spreads such as butter or fruit preserves, and to vinegar and dressings.
Here, in time for your summer parties, is a guide to my 10 favorite edible florets.
Known as “Flowering Onions.” There are nearly 400 species that includes the familiar onion, garlic, chives, ramps and shallots. All members of this genus are edible. Flavors range from mild onion to strong garlic. All parts of the plants are edible. My favorite is the Garlic Blossom ((Allium satifum). The flowers can be white or pink, and the stems are flat instead of round. The flavor has a garlicky zing, milder than the garlic bulb, and wonderful in salads.
These beautiful blue, star-shaped flowers taste a bit like cucumber. They’ve been used in salads since the Elizabethan Age. They’re also delicious in lemonade and cocktails like gin and tonic.
Known as pot marigolds, and the “poor man’s saffron,” the sunset-hued marigold flower really does taste like saffron when it’s sautéed in olive oil to release its flavor.
Uncooked marigold petals have a more subtle, slightly spicy taste and add depth to deviled eggs. Cut the petals off the flower and dry them in a warm (100 degree) oven. Sprinkle the crushed petals on cheese dishes, omelets and rice. Note: Only the petals are edible.
Carnations (aka Dianthus) can be steeped in wine, candy, or used as a cake decoration. To use the surprising sweet petals in desserts, cut them away from the bitter white base of the flower.
Dianthus are the miniature member of the carnation family with light clove or nutmeg-like scent. Petals add color to salads. You can also add them to cake mixes, candies (especially chocolate) and teas. Or sprinkle minced fresh petal over a bowl of berries.
Carnation petals are one of the secret ingredients used to make Chartreuse, a French liqueur, since the 17th century.
Both tart and sweet, hibiscus petals have a cranberry-like flavor that makes them perfect for tea and cocktails. Drop fresh buds into glasses of bubbly and let your guests watch them bloom before their eyes.
Lavender works well when the buds are sprinkled in cocktails and over desserts like chocolate cake. It’s delicious in tea or infused in sauces and ice cream. You can also sprinkle a bit on salads.
Lavender also lends itself savory dishes, from stew to wine-reduced meat sauces. The diminutive blooms add a mysterious cent to custards, flans or sorbets. Note: Do not consume lavender oil unless you absolutely know it has not been sprayed and is culinary safe.
These gorgeous flowers have a slightly peppery taste, almost like watercress. This photo shows them used in a summer rice paper roll. You can also stuff a whole flower with savory mousse or beef carpaccio.
They also look beautiful floating in a tureen of soup of bowl of punch. Try “Empress of India” for its deep red-orange flowers and dark blue-green leaves, which add a sweet mustard flavor to salads. Be sure to remove the spur behind the blossom, as it may shelter insects.
Roses have a strong floral scent, but their flavor is subtle and fruity. They go well in everything from soups and salads to teas, jam and desserts.
Flavors depend on type, color and soil conditions. Some are reminiscent of strawberries and green apple.
The lighter flowers have a mild flavor; the darker a rose’s color, the more likely that it will have a strong metallic taste.
The tiny pink or lavender flowers on this herb are often overlooked in favor of its aromatic leaves.
The lavender flowers of French thyme (T. volgaris) can be sprinkled on top of baked mushroom caps, while the pink flowers of lemon thyme (T.citriodorus) add a citrusy zing.
The bright yellow flowers of this vegetable plant have a delicate and slightly sweet taste. Use them stuffed with cheese, bacon and mushrooms as a flavorful and fun appetizer. Note: If you want squash vegetables also this summer, harvest only male flowers to eat.
Before consuming any plant or flower, identify the flower exactly and only eat the edible parts of those flowers.
Use flowers sparingly in your recipes when you first try them. Too much of a good thing may cause problems for your digestive system.
Remove pistils and stamens from flowers before eating. Separate the flower petals from the rest of the flower just prior to use to keep wilting to a minimum.
Don’t use flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Always purchase your edible flowers from the product section of your grocery store, or from online sources. Try The Chef’s Garden or Gourmet Sweet Botanicals.
Clean edible flowers by washing them gently in a large bowl of cold water and letting them air dry on a paper towel. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days in an airtight container lined with a damp paper towel.
Just because flowers are served with food at a restaurant does not mean they are edible. Know your edible flowers!
Until next week, good eating!