We may be used to thinking of flowers as decoration or for the role they play in our ecosystem, but they can also be used in foods and beverages. "Many of the flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds are also edible to humans," explains Mary Newman, PhD, and co-author of Edible Flowers: A Global History. Here are some consumable blossoms you need to try.
Vegetable and Herb FlowersMany plants that we're already familiar with have edible flowers. Jamie Simpson, the executive chef liaison at the Culinary Vegetable Institute at The Chef's Garden in Milan, Ohio, where over 600 different varieties of vegetables are grown—and which provides produce to restaurants all over the world—encourages exploring vegetable flowers and herb flowers. "They taste like the vegetable they're going to become, and are incredibly aromatic.
Try squash blossoms, pea blossoms and flowers from plants such as asparagus, carrot, cucumber and red onion. Simpson's also a fan of basil, cilantro, dlil and mint flowers. "Pea blooms are great for any dish, sweet or savory, in raw application," he says, or you can enjoy cucumber blossoms with petite cucumbers in salads or cocktails. Red onion blooms are "very savory, very oniony—a true representation of allium" that can be served anywhere you'd use onion. Newman recommends using basil flowers as a garnish for cream of tomato soup.
Less familiar but worth a try: crystal lettuce. "Crystal lettuce makes beautiful little blossoms. Similar to a bloom on a cactus, the buds are succulent, mildly salty and relatively neutral for a wide variety of applications," says Simpson. Mint and basil blooms can be used in sweet and savory applications in cocktails and in sauces. Simpson recommends using highly aromatic dill blooms in fish courses.
Simpson also enjoys drying these flowers. "I'll [use] celery, carrot, onion and leek blossoms to make mirepoix, and that dry flower will become a garnish you can fold into things. It's beautiful."
MarigoldsMarigolds are an approachable edible flower that can be used in many ways. It can be used as a substitute for saffron in recipes and provides a citrus flavor. Simpson says, "The aroma of marigold is fat soluble so it will give itself to oils. So we steep marigolds in milk before we make sorbet or ice cream and the flavor of the marigold comes through."
LavenderHighly aromatic lavender is most commonly used in its dried form and can be found, Newman explains, in most spice markets or online. "Dried lavender flowers can be added to a jar of granulated sugar and then, when making a pound cake or sugar cookie, strain and use the infused sugar." It can also be used in a blend like Herbes de Provence with savory spices.
RoseNewman encourages giving food-grade dried rose buds (available online) a taste. Roses can range in flavor from sweet to fruity to even minty or spicy. Use them, she says, "to garnish any dish much like people used to sprinkle dried parsley on a plate as a garnish. It is particularly pretty on plain white rice."
NasturtiumNewman and Simpson both recommend nasturtium. The blossoms have a sweetly spicy flavor that adds a bright note to many types of dishes. It's especially forgiving to people who want to grow their own edible flowers but need a plant that's easy to grow, explains Newman. When it comes time to harvest, she says, "Just pluck the flowers and put on top of deviled eggs for an instant wow factor."
Beyond being a beautiful garnish, adds Simpson, "they're very giving of their flavor." The leaves, he says, are great for making oils, and the blooms are perfect soaked in vinegar to extract flavor. You can make a vinaigrette by letting the flowers sit with vinegar until the color becomes intensely red and takes on the flavor of the vinegar.
Cleaning and StorageWhen it comes to storage, Simpson says to keep in mind that the flower is one of the most delicate parts of the plant and to "treat them almost as you would a bouquet." He recommends keeping them in a vase with water. While you can refrigerate them to prolong shelf life, they need time to adjust to cooler temperatures so they don't die from the shock of going from room temperature to 40 degrees. "Start with the 70 degrees on the counter to 50 degrees in a cooler to 40 degrees in a refrigerator."
Flowers do need to be washed, especially the low-growing ones, which can get sandy grains inside. "As a general rule," says Simpson, "the best way to do it is gently. You can't just submerge them in water like you do with lettuce—it's difficult for them to bounce back from that. Stick to gentle washing and spraying and removing insects."