Horchata is a refreshing beverage enjoyed throughout Latin America, southern Europe and northern Africa, where it originated. The refreshingly sweet beverage can be enjoyed on its own on a sweltering summer day or as a post-dinner dessert to quell that sweet tooth.
The name "horchata" is derived from the Spanish word for barley — and indeed, horchatas tend to be grain-based drinks. They are often blended with spices (commonly cinnamon), nuts or seeds (which add creaminess) and sugar (a generous amount, which was used as a natural preservative), although there's plenty of regional variation in horchata recipes.
For example, horchata is a popular afternoon snack in Valencia, Spain, where it has been a part of the culinary culture since 1000 A.D. There, it's traditionally made from tiger nuts, a nutritious tuber that is neither tiger nor nut. Some versions are nut- and dairy-free, while other recipes start with a base of soaked almonds or sesame seeds, which provide a creamier texture.
Throughout Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, horchatas start with soaked rice. In Oaxaca, Mexico, horchata is more of a dessert than a beverage — and is made with soaked rice and cinnamon, and topped with walnuts, melon and prickly pear ice cream. Ecuadorian horchata is completely different than most versions. It resembles an herbal tea since it can be made with lemon, honey and about 70 medicinal plants, according to a March 2017 report in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.
That said, the horchata you are most likely to encounter in the United States has its culinary roots in Mexico and starts with soaked white rice. It might include sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and/or whole milk, plus cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. The result? Rich and delicious, for sure. But it could cost you about 25 grams of sugar!
Plus, there simply aren't a lot of benefits of horchata ingredients: The refined white rice quickly breaks down into glucose, the added sugars might contribute to inflammation and the saturated fat in dairy milk may not be doing your cholesterol any favors.
In small portions, horchata could certainly be enjoyed as an occasional treat. But it's easy to whip up a healthier version that's just as refreshing and flavorful, especially when the temperatures climb.
A Healthy Horchata Recipe
This healthier horchata recipe starts with whole-grain brown rice and uses cashews to add creaminess and better-for-you plant-based fats.
Makes 8 servings
- 1/2 cup brown rice, rinsed
- 1/2 cup cashews
- 8 cups unsweetened almond milk, divided
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon, divided
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup stevia, optional
How to Make It
- Rinse the brown rice in cool water until the water runs clear, about one to three times.
- In a blender, add rice, cashews, 4 cups of almond milk, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and vanilla. Blend until coarsely combined. Transfer to a covered container and soak overnight.
- Blend until smooth.
- Transfer mixture to a large bowl and combine with the remainder of the almond milk, cinnamon, vanilla and stevia to taste, one tablespoon at a time, if using.
- Stir well and pour over ice to serve. Garnish with a dusting of cinnamon.
If the texture of your horchata is too gritty, you can strain it using a cheesecloth. Have cinnamon sticks on hand? Break one into a few pieces and add to the mixture before it chills overnight. As an alternative, try substituting tiger nuts for the rice for added fiber.