Horchata so good, you won’t even know it’s vegan
Mexican rice drink gets a dairy-free makeover for a lighter, less sugary beverage
During the warm summer months, nothing beats the heat like ice-cold agua fresca. Tall pitchers of water flavored with either fruit or grains, such as rice or oatmeal, and sweetened with cane sugar are then chilled with lots of ice for a light and refreshing beverage. It’s nothing like fruit juice. In Spanish, agua means water, and fresca means cool, so it’s simply — and deliciously — chilled fruit-flavored water.
The first time I remember having horchata — the rice version of agua fresca — was as a child at my grandparents’ house following a sleepover. Whenever my parents wanted a date night, they’d drop off my sisters and me to spend the night there. Sometimes, we’d take turns sleeping over, one at a time, for a special treat.
Whether alone or as a group, we would often wake in the morning to be greeted by Grandma’s from-scratch pancakes. They were ginormous, each the size of a dinner plate, swimming in thick, clear corn syrup instead of the runnier pancake syrup we had at home. It felt so decadent. It was wonderful.
On one of these occasions, my grandfather also made horchata. Now, my aunt says she doesn’t remember my grandfather ever having made horchata, but then again, she isn’t a fan of aqua frescas, so I think maybe it just didn’t register. I admit, there is a part of me now that doubts the accuracy of my memory. After all, my grandmother often made atoles — hot water thickened with masa harina (the same kind of nixtamalized corn flour used to make corn tortillas) or rice flour and sometimes oats, that she enjoyed on cold days. Maybe it was my grandmother who made the horchata that day, but some images pop into my mind when I think of it, and in those instances, it’s always my grandfather making and serving it. Which of them made it really isn’t as important as the fact that it was the drink itself that left the biggest impression.
Cinnamony, creamy, light, slightly sweet and deliciously cold, it started a life-long love affair with not just agua frescas, but horchata specifically.
How I make a lightened-up version of horchata
The process starts with soaking California long-grain rice, almonds and Mexican canela — ceylon cinnamon — overnight in water. Then it’s all pulverized in a blender and most often combined with whole milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. All this dairy gives it a rich, creamy mouthfeel. Plenty of cane sugar joins the party, and then it’s served over ice. It’s decadent and refreshing and pairs exceptionally well with spicy food or as a thirst quencher on a hot day.
The problem for me is that every time I order a glass at a restaurant, I’m disappointed. It’s often excessively thick and cloyingly sweet.
So I decided to make a few tweaks to give my tummy a break from all the dairy. I skipped soaking the almonds with the rice and, instead, used almond milk. To address the sweetness levels, I drastically reduced the sugar by not adding the condensed milk and dropping the white sugar to a scant ½ cup. The result is still creamy from the almond milk and the starch from the rice, but it’s lighter, with just a kiss of sweetness.
If you use a high-powered blender, a nut milk bag is an essential tool. If you’re unfamiliar with nut milk bags, they’re made with a very-fine-weave mesh and are used to strain the nut pieces from the liquid when making homemade nut milk. I bought mine on Amazon, but not for nut milk. Instead, I bought it to make cold brew coffee. (Have I told you lately that I love coffee?) If homemade cold brew is your jam, let me tell you, it works like a dream! But I digress.
Because I have a Vitamix, if I had used a cheesecloth-lined strainer, the leftover chalky rice and cinnamon fibers would have slipped right on through, and the mouthfeel would have been off. With the nut bag, I had about ⅓ of a cup of sludgy, chalky rice and cinnamon left over after squeezing through the rice mixture. The resulting horchata was silky smooth. If you’re using a regular blender, you’re going to have a more gritty liquid, so a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer will be sufficient.
Here’s another tweak: Typically, once the horchata is strained, it’s diluted with water before serving. But what if you’re not making it for a party or a large group, and it’s just for yourself and maybe a partner? I recommend keeping it in its concentrated form, storing in the refrigerator and diluting it on demand. I love it this way, just like having a bottle of concentrated cold brew coffee in the fridge for when the need arises (and it often arises for me!). When you’re ready to enjoy your homemade horchata, pour equal parts of concentrate and filtered water into a cocktail shaker with ice and give it a good shake. Pour it into an ice-filled glass, and you’re golden.
Homemade horchata concentrate is a tasty addition to your morning smoothie, or in place of creamer in your morning cuppa joe. Or come afternoon, enjoy it with a little rum or coffee liqueur.
Easy Dairy-Free Horchata
The rice needs to soak overnight; plan accordingly. If you don’t have a nut bag, you’ll need four layers of cheesecloth big enough to cover your strainer. This recipe makes about 3 cups of horchata concentrate. For a thicker horchata, dilute with less water.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup California long-grain rice
1 (4- or 5-inch) stick Mexican cinnamon (canela, aka, ceylon cinnamon)
2 ½ cups almond milk
½ cup granulated sugar, or more to taste
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Equal amount of water
Ground cinnamon, optional
Cinnamon stick as swizzle (canela, preferred), optional
The night before you plan on serving, add rice and cinnamon to a bowl. Add water to cover by 2 inches, cover and leave on the counter overnight. (If you don’t want to wait overnight, pour boiling water over the rice and cinnamon, covering by 2 inches, and leave to soak for 3-4 hours.)
The next day, drain the rice and cinnamon, discarding the water. Add the rice mixture to a blender along with the almond milk. Blend on high for 2 minutes if using a high-powered blender or, if not, until rice is as fine as your blender can achieve. Place a nut milk bag in a large bowl (alternatively, use a strainer lined with cheesecloth and place over a bowl). Pour the horchata concentrate through the nut milk bag (or through the strainer). Squeeze the nut bag, extracting all the liquid; discard the solids. Whisk in the sugar and vanilla until the sugar has dissolved.
If serving immediately to a crowd, pour into a large pitcher with an equal amount of cold filtered water and some ice. Serve in ice-filled glasses. Garnish each serving with a shake of ground cinnamon, optional.
If serving later, pour the concentrate into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. When ready to serve, shake or stir the horchata (the contents will most likely have separated while sitting). Add equal parts (or to taste) concentrate and filtered water into an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake until there is condensation on the outside of the shaker. Pour into an ice-filled glass. Garnish with ground cinnamon, optional.
Note: Typically, the soaking liquid is used and blended along with the soaked rice. Because we’re substituting almond milk for the thicker sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, using the soaking liquid would cut down the creaminess of the concentrate.
Makes 1 cocktail
¾ cup horchata concentrate
¼ cup almond or coconut milk
1 ounce dark rum
Ground cinnamon, optional garnish
Add the horchata, milk and rum to an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake for 1 minute or until the outside of the shaker has condensation. Pour into a tall, ice-filled glass. Garnish with cinnamon, optional.
Makes 1 cocktail
¾ cup horchata concentrate
¼ cup almond or coconut milk
1 shot of espresso, slightly cooled
1 ounce of Kahlúa or your favorite coffee liqueur
Add the horchata, milk, espresso and Kahlúa to an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake for 1 minute or until the outside of the shaker has condensation. Pour into a tall, ice-filled glass. Garnish with cinnamon, optional.
Recipes are copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula from Confessions of a Foodie. Reprinted by permission.
Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at www.confessionsofafoodie.me, where this article originally published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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