With their natural beauty, vibrancy and taste, flowers have an innate ability to inspire wonder and a feeling of ‘wow’, particularly when they are used in the correct way in food. By harnessing flower power, chefs can quickly elevate their dishes to a new level. Understanding how to use them in a culinary sense – with respect to presentation and flavor – is therefore very important to master.
Common Uses for Flowers in Food
The use of flowers in food dates back to ancient times. The Romans and Greeks used them for both medicinal and edible purposes. Queen Victoria was also a fan, as were many others from countries across the Middle East and Asia. All have traditionally used flowers to enhance their food or as tonics for ailments.
Today, there has been a revival of using flowers in food, primarily for their flavor, aroma and aesthetics.
The following is a brief illustration of some of the key ways to use flowers in food.
Plating & Garnish
Learning how to present food like a professional chef can take many years of practice to perfect. It involves a number of important techniques one must develop to discover how to use flowers to adequately please both the eye and palate.
During this learning process, chefs learn a number of flower usage fundamentals. These include:
- Knowing which flowers are edible & safe to consume
- Understanding each flower’s flavor profile
- Ensuring flowers are used appropriately to enhance the flavor of the overall dish
- Learning how to garnish to avoid overloading the plate
Another very popular way to use flowers in food is in cake decoration. Some of the most oft-used varieties include roses, pansies and violets. Many pastry chefs use whole flowers to spectacular effect, but candied or crystallized flowers are also an excellent option.
Complete Dishes Using Flowers
As has been mentioned previously, numerous cultures all over the world use flowers and their leaves as the main ingredient in traditional dishes. The hibiscus flower and its leaves are one such example with nations such as India, Burma, Vietnam, Mali and the Philippines all using these components to make chutneys, stir-fries, soups and meat-based stews.
How to Tell if a Flower is Safe to Use in Food
While using flowers in food is a wonderful way to showcase one’s skills, it also poses some risk, unless the chef is knowledgeable in the way of flowers.
Many flowers are edible but some are also toxic. Furthermore, one flower genus may be safe to consume but another in the same family may not be. Eating the flower part of the plant may also be fine, but other parts of the plant might be poisonous. Honeysuckle is a perfect case in point as the flowers are safe to consume, but the berries are highly toxic.
The following are some general guidelines to follow when using flowers in food but it is imperative chefs do their own thorough research before using flowers in dishes.
General flower use guidelines
Check the species
Be 100% sure the flower is edible, using both the genus name and specific name when researching, particularly as some plants have multiple variations within the same species.
Choose a reputable source
Ensure the flowers are free of pesticides. Steer clear of those found by roadside or those from florists or nurseries, unless the grower can confirm an absence of chemicals. Consider contacting specialist growers who sell edible flowers to restaurants and professional chefs.
- Use sparingly
- Do not overuse flowers in a dish as this can upset the diner’s digestive
Wash flowers thoroughly before using.
Be wary of allergies
Remove the flower’s reproductive organs (pistils and stamens) as this can reduce the chances of an allergic reaction should a diner have a pollen allergy.
Pick the right parts
Consume only the petals, unless research has deemed it safe to eat other parts of the plant.
What Flowers Can Be Used in Food?
There are many flowers that can safely be used in food, whether for presentation, decorative or flavor-enhancing purposes.
Popular Types of Flowers to Use
ChrysanthemumColor profile - large range of bright colors.
Flavor profile - tangy with a hint of bitterness. Some variations are peppery.
Uses - salads, cake decorations, flavor vinegar.
Cornflower (or Bachelors Button)Color profile - blue, dark red, white, ivory, pink.
Flavor profile - mild flavor with a very light clove undertone.
Uses - food coloring, decoration, garnish.
HibiscusColor profile - white, red, orange, pink, peach, yellow, purple.
Flavor profile - cranberry taste with a mixture of tartness & sweetness.
Uses - tea, salads, garnish, food coloring, in alcoholic beverages such as champagne.
HoneysuckleColor profile - white, yellow, orange.
Flavor profile - honeyed taste.
Uses - tea, ice-cream & sorbet, decoration, syrup, jelly.
Note: the flowers are edible but berries are poisonous. Do thorough research before using to ensure diner’s safety.
LavenderColor profile - pink, purple, violet, blue, light grey.
Flavor profile - sweet, floral taste accompanied by strong perfumed scent.
Uses - cakes, custards, ice-creams, sorbets, biscuits, savory dishes such as stews or sauces, to flavor champagne, garnish.
PansiesColor profile - a full range of bright colors.
Flavor profile - a light, slightly sweet grass-like taste.
Uses - salads, garnish, desserts, to accompany fruit, as part of a savory appetizer.
Rose PetalsColor profile - wide variety of colors from light tones through to deep, dark reds.
Flavor profile - dependent on variety, could be fruity, minty, sweet or spicy. Generally, the more fragrant the rose, the deeper the flavor.
Uses - are almost endless. Drinks, syrups, most forms of desserts, to flavor vinegar, salads, butters, food coloring.
- Color profile - purple-blue, pink, white.
- Flavor profile - akin to sage flavor, but lighter with a hint of sweetness.
- Uses - savory to sweet dishes (sautéed vegetables, ice-cream etc), garnish, also an excellent way to boost sage flavor if the herb is present in the dish.
VioletsColor profile - most commonly violet, but also blue, white, yellow, white and cream.
Flavor profile - delicate, sweet taste with a floral undertone.
Uses - salads, garnish (fresh or candied/crystallized), desserts, in drinks, soup, sorbets & ice-creams, cake decoration.
There are just some of the most commonly-used flowers in food preparation. Others include nasturtiums, marigolds, dandelions, squash and pumpkin blooms, plus other herb flowers such as oregano and rosemary.
Once one has acquired the appropriate basic flower safety knowledge, experimentation is the key to discover the best flower flavor combinations. It can be a wonderful way to create new and innovative dishes that will surely delight diners.