What it is:
If you’ve never had it or heard of it, horchata can best be described as a refreshing, creamy-ish, cinnamon-y drink that is served chilled, pleasantly sweet and great for something to sip on in the summer heat. Think along the lines of a rice or almond milk with cinnamon (but better). The beverage has an exotic history that traces back to ancient times: Horchata first popped up in Egypt, where it was made from the chufa nut (also called the tigernut), and at some point the drink made its way over to Spain. By the time the Spaniards brought horchata over to Mexico, the drink had evolved into something different, made instead with rice and often also with almonds.
What you’ll find is that many people today make it with milk. While this may yield a similar final product, authentic horchata is entirely non-dairy. We read somewhere that this has to do with street vendors being able to sell it out in the hot sun all day without it going bad. We’re not sure if this is true, as the exact history of the drink is somewhat of a mystery, but it would make a lot of sense.
So, where can I find a recipe?
It seems like it should be easy, but once you start looking… can you say, information overload? In the hopes of learning everything we could about horchata and how it’s made before trying to make it ourselves, we researched an abundance of recipes. There are just so many different techniques out there and each version calls for the essential ingredients in different proportions. You’ll walk away from your computer with more questions than when you sat down…
Which rice do I use?
Almost all recipes use long-grain white, a “neutral” rice that cooperates well with cinnamon. However, some insist long-grain brown is the way to go. And then, how much to use? While some versions use just rice, others use rice and almonds; in the latter case, less rice is used (to almond, or not to almond?).
How many cups of water do I use?
Directions for this are all over the map, and this is a key component because you want your horchata to fall in that happy place at the intersection of “not too creamy” and “not too watery.” And then, instead of water, some recipes use milk. Some use both! Should milk be used?
(We’ll give you a hint, the answer is no)
How long do I soak my mixture?
While every recipe out there recognizes that your rice/water/cinnamon (/milk/almond/lime zest/kitchen sink) mixture needs to soak for some period of time, the exact timing is, again, seriously all over the map. One recipe says two hours? Another says two full days? Oh, OK.
The questions don’t stop (Do I toast the rice or almonds beforehand? Should the mixture go in the fridge while it soaks? Should I use lime zest? And so on and so forth). The answer is that you can’t know how a horchata recipe will turn out until you’ve already committed much of your time and gone through all of the motions.
Unless it comes from a trusted source.
So, let us be your trusted source (scroll all the way down for the recipe).
The formula / keeping it authentic:
There is more than one way to make “traditional” Mexican horchata, but what all authentic recipes share in common – beyond being rice-based and non-dairy – is a same general sequence of steps to follow:
As for what goes into the mix, all “authentic” variations call for ground rice, a cinnamon stick and hot water. As we’ve mentioned, many recipes call for almonds. Some recipes also call for lime zest, and the key to this is making sure you are only getting the green stuff (vs. the white stuff, which will give your mixture a bitter component, which nobody wants).
How to Prep
Once you have all of your ingredients, it is very important that the rice be ground up well prior to soaking the mixture. “Pulverized” is a good way to describe the desired consistency. This is to maximize the infusion of cinnamon and to allow for the rice to soak properly. It is necessary for both the flavor and the texture. Also, if you are using almonds, the almonds must be blanched and removed from their skins before being added to the mixture (see recipe for directions).
How to Soak
It is important to let the mixture stand overnight. The precise number of hours required is not set in stone, so if you’re making it in the morning give it at least 10 (a generous night’s sleep worth). You will find recipes that skip this step. We don’t want to say that they’re cheating, but it’s kind of like running across the sidewalk while the cement is still wet. If you want your mixture to be authentic and fully adopt that cinnamon-y flavor and for the rice and almonds to soften, you’ll have to do it the “old-fashioned” way and wait (it’s worth it).
The Next Day: Blending and Straining
After soaking comes blending, with cold water this time. After blending, comes the trickiest and arguably the most important step: straining. Most recipes call for this to be done through a strainer lined with three layers of cheesecloth, in order to get that smooth texture and keep out all the grit that gets left behind. We didn’t have cheesecloth, so we had to improvise (read on).
The Four Batches:
Our research left us eager to get into the kitchen and with a number of ideas of how to design our horchata experiment. This is what we ultimately decided to put to the taste test:
Batch 1: Almonds and Rice, 2:1 Almonds to Rice
Batch 2: Almonds and Rice, 3:1 Almonds to Rice
Batch 3: Just Rice
Batch 4: Almonds and Rice, 2:1 Almonds to Rice, With Lime Zest
We needed to know the difference between using rice and almonds versus using just rice (Batch 1 vs. Batch 3). We wanted to pinpoint the right proportion of almonds to rice (when using almonds), which seemed to fall somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 (Batch 1 vs. Batch 2). Last, we were curious about what would happen with the addition of lime zest (Batch 1 vs. Batch 4).
The night before testing, we prepared our mixtures to soak by grinding up our rice and blanching/skinning our almonds, then adding them to jars 1 through 4 in the appropriate proportions along with cinnamon stick and hot water (and, in the case of Batch 4, a strip of lime zest).
The next day, one by one we blended up each batch with cold water and then strained before returning them to their respective jars, a strenuous process but one with a satisfying result. We didn’t have cheesecloth on hand so we tried a coffee filter. That didn’t work at all so then we ended up using a tea strainer. After much blender-washing, power-straining and mild sweetening, it was finally time for testing/taste-testing…
*Note: to isolate the effects of each test, we controlled for everything else; for all four batches, we used the same amount of water (slightly less for just rice), added the same amount of cinnamon stick, soaked for an equal amount of time, etc.
The Results / The Winner:
One epic taste test. One great deliberation. Only room for one winner…
…And the award goes to Batch 2! Almonds? Yes. How many? A lot. Lime? No.
It was not that close of a race, the choice was actually pretty easy. Here is what we observed:
Batch 1: Standard Horchata (2 parts almonds: 1 part rice)
The first of the horchatas that we sampled, Batch 1 was not bad. We could taste the presence of the rice as well as the almonds and the consistency was satisfactory. Nice and cinnamon-y. Overall, pretty decent.
Batch 2: Not-Your-Average Horchata (3 parts almonds: 1 part rice)
The almond taste was immediately more apparent, in a good way, and the consistency was perfectly creamy. This batch was essentially a richer, nuttier version of Batch 1, and it was just delightful once we tried it over ice (RECIPE BELOW).
Batch 3: Hor-chalk-a (all rice, no almonds)
This oddball of the group was an enigma from start to finish. We had high hopes for Batch 3 when we saw how much easier it was to strain (it yielded about 50% more volume), but our hopes were soon defeated. Batch 3 had a chalky taste and a starchy consistency to be followed by a gritty aftertaste. On top of that, it was somehow watery at the same time. As it turns out, almonds really do make a difference. We’re not debunking all “just rice” horchatas, but getting this one right will prove to be more complicated.
Batch 4: Put the lime in the coconut… but keep it out of the Horchata (2 parts almonds: 1 part rice + lime zest)
Oh, the lime. We didn’t hate the lime, in theory the flavor complements the other ingredients quite nicely. However, we only used a very small amount, and Batch 4 – which was identical to Batch 1, in all other respects – ended up with this overwhelming lime taste, and a slightly bitter aftertaste. Those other flavors never stood a chance. Perhaps it would serve better as a garnish on top.
And without further ado…our perfect horchata!
Authentic Mexican Horchata
Makes 4-6 cups
- ⅓ cup uncooked, long-grain white rice
- 1 cup almonds
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 5 cups water, divided (3 cups hot, 2 cups cold)
- ½ cup concentrated simple syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
- Blanch the almonds by tossing them into boiling water for about a minute, then draining under cold water. After blanching, give each of those little guys a squeeze and the skins should slip right off. Once the almonds are blanched, skinned, and dried, toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly brown.
- Pulverize the rice in a spice grinder or blender. Take your time and make sure it reaches a fine powder.
- Add the ground rice to a large jar or bowl (we used jars) with the almonds and cinnamon stick (see if you can get your hands on a mexican cinnamon stick). Stir in the 3 cups of hot water, allow to cool to room temperature then cover and let stand overnight (not in the fridge!).
THE NEXT DAY:
- Transfer the mixture into your blender, add the 2 cups of cold water and blend until it is nice and smooth. How long you do this for will depend on the power of your blender; it will take at least a minute and up to four.
- Strain the blended mixture slowly into a pitcher- most recipes require that you use a strainer lined with three layers of cheesecloth, but if you’re like us, go ahead and use a fine mesh tea strainer. We found it easiest to strain a small amount, guiding it through with a spoon, and then discard the stuff that was left behind (don’t be fooled if this stuff looks tasty, it’s really not).
- Add concentrated simple syrup. When preparing the syrup beforehand, you can either dissolve it on the stove or in the microwave. If you try it and would like it sweeter, use more.
- Refrigerate. Serve over ice. Garnish with cinnamon/cinnamon stick. Salud!