What Is Horchata?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Agua de Horchata in a pitcher and glass
 Kimberlee Reime/Getty Images

Horchata (or-CHAH-tah) is the generic name in Spanish for a variety of sweet drinks made of grains, ground nuts, and spices—or a combination of all three, sometimes with even more additions like seeds. It originated in Spain as a nut beverage (horchata de chufa, made of tiger nuts) but when imported to the Americas, it quickly transformed into the Mexican rice horchata, its most commonly known form. The beverage, as it is consumed in today's Mexico, is made of rice, sugar, water, and spices—a dairy-free but milky-looking drink that is served over ice as a cooling beverage.

Fast Facts

  • Nutrition: Usually dairy-free, some are gluten-free
  • Origin: Spain
  • Famous in: Latin America, Spain
  • Ingredients: Grains, water, spices, and sugar
  • Storage: Keep it in the fridge; drink it over ice

What Is Horchata?

Horchata is a sweet and usually dairy-free beverage made of soaked grains (or nuts and seeds) and water that is flavored with spices. Although each culture brings its own preferences and flavor profiles into the preparation, and other ingredients are added, horchata is, in essence, a simple and humble beverage. Widely consumed in Mexico, there not only are adaptations throughout Latin America, but also versions in African traditions, where soaked grains are also used to make beverages.

Varieties

The most famous horchata in the Western world is the Mexican rice-based drink, sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon. Across Mexico, the basic recipe is then enhanced with a variety of other flavors like edible flowers or fruits. The ancient Spanish recipe, still consumed during the hot months of the year, is made of tiger nuts and provides a good source of creamy protein for people who can't consume lactose. Puerto Rico has its own version, made of sesame seeds and spices, and Central American nations follow the same overnight soaking process to make beverages of seeds, legumes, spices, grains, and herbs.

What Does Horchata Taste Like?

Horchata flavor can vary greatly depending on the recipe, but in general, these are mild, sweet, and creamy beverages, perfumed with local spices and sweetened with natural sugars. They're meant to be refreshing, and some are more filling than others, but most accomplish a cooling and soothing effect.

Horchata Recipes

Some horchatas can be quickly prepared, but others might require a lot more soaking time. Horchata is a delicious drink to accompany pastries and fresh bread, main meals, or to enjoy on its own. The simple rice horchata can be spiced-up with cloves, star anise, all-spice, vanilla, or nutmeg. In Mexico, it's common to see horchata with fruits like cantaloupe, berries, or apricots. Some cooks choose to toast the rice before soaking to add a subtle smokey profile to the beverage.

In other cuisines, horchata includes almonds, like the Indian version, and yet others add milk (yogurt, or kefir) to make a silkier and more caloric drink. Sometimes liquors are added to make an attractive grown-up version.

Where to Buy Horchata

Rice horchata is available all over the streets of Mexico, where vendors carry big containers filled with ice and sell the beverage by the glass. Most Mexican restaurants inside and outside of Mexico will serve horchata (alongside aguas frescas and agua de Jamaica) and some companies are bottling the beverage with different flavor profiles to reach a broader audience looking for dairy-free alternatives. Rice horchata syrup is also available; it only needs to be watered down before drinking. Horchatas from other origins are found in specialty restaurants of each cuisine.

Storage

Because most horchatas are usually dairy-free, they will keep for longer times in the refrigerator: keep in a pitcher with a lid on for up to 10 days. If the beverage contains milk, it might not last longer than three to four days, but in both cases, the smell is a good indication if the beverage is still good for consumption.

Because most horchatas are grain-based, fermentation might occur, alongside a change in flavor. Discard if you notice an acidic tone in the flavor or any foaming on the top.

Nutrition and Benefits

Mexican horchata, simply made with rice and sugar, has no substantial amounts of protein or vitamins. Depending on the ingredients, different horchatas can provide different benefits but it all comes down to the grain, sweeteners, or high-protein nuts or seeds used in the recipe, or if dairy is added or not. For beverages containing legumes, nuts, seeds, or dairy, the protein benefits are high, and so is the caloric content thanks to the fat content of almonds, pistachios, cashews, and peanuts, included in horchata recipes of different origins.