Rosewater: Everything you need to know

Karen Martini's basbousa with pistachio and almond
Karen Martini's basbousa with pistachio and almond  Photo: Marina Oliphant

What is it?

Rosewater is the beautifully aromatic extract of rose petals. While tiny amounts are made domestically, 90 per cent of global rosewater production is made in Iran. During late spring, petals of the Damask roses are hand-picked, steeped in water in large copper pots, and heated. The vapour is condensed and the liquid bottled.

Rosewater has been used since classical times and spread around Europe with the Moorish expansion in the 8th century. Rosewater was common in British kitchens until the Victorian period when it was usurped by vanilla. While rosewater is synonymous with Middle Eastern cuisine, it is used in cooking right around Europe and across the Indian subcontinent.

Think of rosewater like perfume, a little goes a long way.
Think of rosewater like perfume, a little goes a long way. Photo: Pat Scala

Why do we love it?

Place your nose over an open bottle and your memory is jerked into visions of early summer rose gardens, grandmother's front yard, Turkish delight, Indian halwa or old-fashioned British nougat.

While rosewater contains no sugar, it evokes the sensation of sweetness. It also has a dusky, exotic and sensual aroma that when used in food, adds layers of intrigue and even romance to a dish.

Who uses it?

Middle Eastern cookbooks by Claudia Roden and Yotam Ottolenghi offer myriad recipes using rosewater. Local authors Greg and Lucy Malouf give a spectacular recipe for rose-flavoured berry fool with mascarpone in their book Arabesque.

Turkish chef Coskun Uysal from Tulum in Balaclava, Melbourne says, "I always remember Mum mixing a little rosewater with oil, lemon juice and salt to dress a green salad with cucumbers. Now I dress pickled cucumbers with rosewater and serve these with pan-fried sardines, preserved lemon and dill."

He also makes a prune and rosewater jam he serves with slow-cooked lamb shoulder.

How do you use it?

Sparingly. Think of it like perfume, a little goes a long way.

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Rosewater is also delicate, heat it and it loses its aroma, so you will notice recipes such as German Bethmaennchen – marzipan and rosewater biscuits, require a good dose of rosewater because it evaporates during baking.

Rosewater loves dairy, sugar and fruit. Rose is a member of the Rosaceae family, as are raspberries, strawberries, quinces, plums, apples and pears.

  • A little rosewater added to apple and quince crumble, berry salad, plum tart will lift the natural flavour and aroma.
  • Whisk some rosewater with a little sugar through your whipped cream and spread it in the middle of a sponge with strawberries.
  • Cook lamb shanks with Middle Eastern spices and add a teaspoon of rosewater near the end of cooking.
  • Add a little when making nougat or marshmallows.
  • Whisk a half teaspoon through a sweet souffle.
  • Add a few drops to a gin cocktail.
  • Mix a few teaspoons into your next batch of homemade lemonade.
  • More ways with rosewater

Where to get it?

Supermarkets stock Queen's rosewater essence, or go to Indian and Middle Eastern stores and look for brands such as Al Wadi, Al Rabih and Cortas. Essential Ingredient also carries a lovely rosewater.

Excellent Australian-made rosewater can be bought online from samariafarm.com.au where food-grade rosewater is sold as misting sprays.

After more than 10 years of answering readers' vexing culinary questions, Richard Cornish is turning his focus to ingredients. Send ingredient suggestions to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au or via Twitter and Instagram.