When most people buy flowers, it’s for a little eye candy or aromatherapy around the home or office. But what about buying flowers for a meal?
Many cooks know that flowers can be an indelible part of a great tasting—and great looking—meal. Whether it’s candied rose petals on a cake or herb-laced butter with spicy nasturtiums, a flavorful blossom can transform any dish into a life-changing experience, as in, “I just ate what?” The right edible flower in the right dish can convert the most cynical person into a foodie for life.
Where to Find Them
The best places to purchase edible flowers are venues where quality produce is sold (green markets, farmer’s markets, etc). You can also grow edible flowers in a home garden, whether it’s a container variety or a large plot of land. Florists, nurseries, and garden centers are NOT reliable sources. Flowers that have been exposed to animal excrement, pesticides, fertilizers, or carbon monoxide (e.g., those pretty wild flowers on the side of the road) should also be avoided.
Be sure that the blossoms are labeled as edible crops. Flowers from herb plants are a safe bet. You can eat the whole flower and it will taste similar to the leaves. They can be used like the leaves of the plant. The petals of many fruit blossoms are the only parts that can be eaten. They are usually candied and used in desserts, or used in beverages.
Diving Right In
The list of edible flowers is quite a long one, and can be quite daunting for someone who is just mildly curious. The following is an abridged list, or a starter list, of edible flowers with descriptions of each blossom as well as flavors and uses in cooking.
Description: vegetable flower; small, white, dark in the middle, and cross-shaped.
Flavor: similar to the arugula leaves.
Description: herb flower; bright white, pale pink, or lavender.
Flavor: milder than the basil leaves.
Uses: salad or garnish over pasta dishes.
Description: round, fluffy flower; orange, yellow, some white; petals should only be eaten.
Uses: fruit salads, sherbet, sorbet, desserts.
Description: herb flower; light purplish-blue star shaped blossoms.
Uses: salads, chilled soups, summer beverages, sorbets, and dips.
Description: herb flower; it resembles large clover blossoms.
Flavor: sweet, delicate, onion-like flavor.
Uses: salads and summer beverages.
Description: yellow to orange color flower, with skinny petals.
Taste: slightly bitter, like chicory or endive.
Uses: soups and beverages; when fried in butter tastes like mushrooms; makes a potent wine.
Description: do not confuse with any other type of lily, which contain alkaloids and are NOT edible; may act as a laxative, so use sparingly.
Taste: from sweet to tart; can be crunchy like chestnuts.
Description: also known as a carnation; usually pink or red.
Taste: similar to clove or nutmeg.
Description: an herb flower, it can be white or pink with stems that are flat.
Flavor: milder than a garlic bulb.
Uses: salads, garnish over pasta dishes.
Description: many ginger flowers are only ornamental, so be sure you get the torch ginger flower, also known as bunga katan, which is pale pink with triangular petals.
Flavor: milder than the root.
Uses: thinly sliced garnish over Southeast Asian dishes.
Description: herb flower; dark blue, but sometimes pink or white.
Flavor: minty, pungent, and peppery.
Uses: garnish for savory stews using beans, beef, cranberry, duck, pork, potato, sausage, turkey, or veal.
Description: delicate and little, yellow or tangerine colors.
Taste: citrus, a little spicy and bitter.
Uses: salads, soups, savory dishes, can be used as a substitute for saffron.
Description: brightly painted blossoms, gold, mahogany, orange, purple, blue, yellow.
Flavor: tangy like watercress.
Uses: salads, egg dishes, stuffed as an appetizer; buds are often harvested and used like capers.
Description: come in a wide variety of colors; small roundish petals, the top two overlapping each other; the bottom petal has a slight indentation.
Flavor: mild wintergreen flavor.
Uses: desserts, salads.
Description: most popular cut flower in the world; always cut the rose at its base to avoid the bitter-tasting white bottom; use only the petals.
Flavor: strong, sweet, and fragrant.
Uses: beverages, desserts.
Description: herb flower; deep purple, tiny blossoms.
Flavor: milder version of the leaf; fresh or dried herb and blossoms enhance flavor.
Uses: Mediterranean dishes, meat, seafood, sorbets, or dressings.
Squash and Zucchini
Description: vegetable flower; long, narrow, soft orange blossoms.
Taste: mildly sweet.
Uses: salads, egg dishes, stuffed as an appetizer, sautéed with garlic and olive oil over pasta.
General Instructions for Preparation
Shake them gently to knock out any small insects. Float them in a bowl of water, then shake dry. Separate those that grow in a cluster at the base, like chive blossoms. If they are herb flowers, pluck the flower whole from the stem. Otherwise, pluck off the petals. Unless they are small to begin with, finely slice, chop, or tear blossoms.
One last word on edible flowers: Even when dining in a fancy restaurant, do not assume that the flowers garnishing a dish are edible. If you recognize the flower as an edible one, then eat with gleeful abandon. But if you are unsure, then abandon any desire to lick the plate—flowers and all—clean. Non-edible flowers and even parts of edible flowers can be poisonous, so a working knowledge of what can and cannot be safely consumed can be quite handy to have. Also, asthmatics and people allergic to composite type flowers (family of flowering plants where a group of flowers cluster together, resembling a single head) need to be wary of these pretty garnishes.
This is only a starter list of edible flowers to experiment with, but more than enough to create a colorful and flavorful next meal.