Bakers Journal

A feast of flowers

March 4, 2011
By Brandi Cowen

Humans have been eating flowers for millennia and, whether we realize it or not, many of us continue to do so. Have you chowed down on broccoli lately? If so, then you’ve actually been chomping on flowers, or at least their unopened buds.

Humans have been eating flowers for millennia and, whether we realize it or not, many of us continue to do so. Have you chowed down on broccoli lately? If so, then you’ve actually been chomping on flowers, or at least their unopened buds.

Visual appeal is one of the biggest reasons for using edible blooms.

The flavours that flowers can add to your baking are as varied as the flowers themselves, ranging from sweet to savoury and touching on every taste in between. Beyond variety, flowers can also add a splash of colour to breads, cookies, cakes and just about anything else that comes from your kitchen. The only limits to what you can do with flowers are those imposed by your own imagination.


“Probably the most popular varieties are bachelor’s buttons, violas and nasturtiums,” says David Cohlmeyer, founder of Cookstown Greens, a 90-plus acre farm in Thornton, Ont., roughly 80 kilometres north of Toronto.

Other popular edible blooms include two varieties of marigolds with strong citrus flavours. “There’s an orange one that tastes like orange peel or has the aroma of an orange peel, and a yellow one that has the aroma of a lemon peel,” Cohlmeyer explains. “They’re small, they look nice, and they taste great too.”

The all-organic Cookstown Greens farm has been supplying restaurants and hotels with seasonal edible flowers, as well as assorted vegetables, greens and garnishing leaves, since 1988. In that time, demand for edible blooms from the farm has remained quite stable, weathering the many food fads that have come and gone.

“We’ve been doing it for the past 22 years and it’s been pretty steady all through the years,” Cohlmeyer says. “I find it interesting whenever somebody writes about edible flowers and how they’re going out of fashion. We always say, ‘oh, we’d better plant some more’ then, because they’re always wrong.”

One flower that does experience a lot of ups and downs in demand is the tart begonia. According to Cohlmeyer, these bright blooms are much more popular on the west coast than elsewhere. “And so, in Toronto, when you have an influx of west coast chefs, we start selling them. But then when they move on to Europe or return out west, they don’t leave behind the tradition of eating begonias.”

One of the big draws of incorporating flowers into food is the visual appeal brightly coloured blooms can add to a presentation. For example, Cohlmeyer explains that begonias, which are packed with colourful pigments, can add a colourful touch to a pasta dish. “You just cook the pasta and when you drain it, you throw in the chopped petals. You get bursts of colour in your pasta.”

Although he hasn’t tried it himself, he adds, “If you’re doing a cupcake, you could put in some shredded begonia petals and get a confetti of colours appearing inside of it. I’m sure it would work with baking breads or cakes, and tart flavours are becoming more and more popular.”

In the book Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate (Fulcrum Publishing: 1993), Cathy Wilkinson Barash identifies what she refers to as “the big 10” in the world of edible flowers. These flowers are among the most versatile of all edible varieties.

Barash writes that calendula (bright orange flowers often referred to as marigolds) taste slightly bitter and are usually used for colour, while vibrant yellow signet marigolds taste similar to tarragon. The huge number of varieties of daylilies and their hybrids make pinning down the precise flavour of this floral variety difficult, and the same is true of roses. While the ever-popular nasturtiums have a spicy pepper flavour, pansies have a sweet, grassy taste.

Rounding out Barash’s list are a variety of plants that, while not likely new to your palate, may introduce you to new flavours if you simply try munching a different part of the plant than you usually eat. Flowers from the chive plant have a strong onion flavour, while those from the sage plant have a very subtle flavour similar to that of the leaves. The blooms from a squash plant have a mild vegetal taste and complement the flavour of the squash itself. Last but by no means least, the taste of a mint flower depends on the variety of the plant.

These blooms offer lots of flavours to play with, but Barash’s big 10 are only the tip of the floral iceberg. Those pesky dandelions that seem to take over public spaces in the summer can go from nuisance to tasty summertime treat if you remove the stems and sepals and boil them to create a sweet dandelion wine. Flowers from all the different varieties of apple trees can add fresh flavours to your baking long before the orchards are bursting with those staple fall fruits. In short, there are an endless number of floral flavours to experiment with.

When working with edible flowers, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

First and foremost, remember that not all flowers are edible; some are poisonous. Cohlmeyer warns that it’s important to work with a knowledgeable supplier because, “There’s a lot of misinformation. Poinsettias, for instance, are considered poisonous, but they’re not . . . . There’s no record of anybody getting ill from them.” A trusted supplier can help you unravel urban legends and learn which flowers are right for your business.

If you’re sourcing flowers from a personal garden, pay careful attention to how they are grown. Blossoms destined for the kitchen should be raised organically, without pesticides. In Edible Flowers, Barash also warns that flowers cultivated with an eye to culinary use should be grown away from roads, as they can become contaminated with emissions from passing cars.

Both Barash and Cohlmeyer emphasize that edible flowers should never be purchased from a florist, as these flowers may be contaminated with pesticides or other chemicals that may be harmful if eaten.

Once you’ve sourced your flowers, it’s important to learn the proper ways to prepare them. Some flowers can be eaten raw, while others need to be cooked. The stamens and styles should be removed from all flowers before use, while the sepals should be removed from everything but Johnny-jump-ups, pansies and violas. With some flower varieties, only the petals may be edible, as is the case with the rose. Understanding how to safely prepare a flower is key, as proper uses may dictate how you incorporate edible flowers into your baking.

Although flowers make a beautiful standalone ingredient, you can also use them to infuse other ingredients with floral flavours. Floral butters, flours, sugars and syrups are easy to make, and the Internet is bursting with recipes and step-by-step instructions.

However you choose to incorporate edible flowers into your baking, remember that pretty presentations are nice, but so is being able to eat a floral flavoured treat. Cohlmeyer suggests keeping flowers small and bite-sized. “I’ve seen presentations of a whole rose, but how do you eat it unless you pull the petals off?”

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