The Horchata Experiment

I've never been able to say no to requests. If a friend or loved one asks me..."Hey, do you think that you could make this for me?"...I have a habit of happily accepting before I really know what I'm getting myself into. (See: A dish for a fraternity potluck on a $10 budget.) The latest example of this would be my brother-in-law's request for homemade horchata.  I thought, "Sure, why not? It's just a drink."...Yeah, well, about that...I've actually never even had horchata before. Not at a taqueria. Not at a market stand. Not even the store-bought bottled version. Never......So, I need to recreate something that I've never tasted, you say?? Challenge accepted.

First, I looked up a few recipes to compare and to find out exactly what it is. I was able to figure out a few important things: 1) Horchata has different versions and even names, depending on what Latin country you find yourself in. The kind that seems the most popular is the Mexican variation. 2) Rice and cinnamon give this particular horchata its flavor. And 3) The steps to make it are reeeeeeaaally simple...Soak, blend, strain. Like I said, simple...It just takes time. This is one of the reasons why it's usually a good idea to just go ahead and make this "agua fresca" in large batches.

Lastly, I needed to actually taste some horchata so that I could have something to compare my own to. Walking to the taqueria down the street would've been ideal, but I resorted to a powdered mix that I found at the store, like pouches you'd find for Kool-Aid or lemonade. When I fixed up a couple of glasses, though, Jeremiah said that it was too thin and watery, and this store-bought horchata was a little too heavy on the cinnamon. (Surprise, surprise. It tasted artificial.) I kept my fingers crossed that this underwhelming, not-so-tasty stuff would pave the way for my horchata to really shine. (Set a low standard. This was my foolproof logic.)

To start, most recipes said to soak the rice and cinnamon sticks in water overnight. But, exactly how long is "overnight" supposed to be??...The longer the better? Or is there a point where it gets to be "too long"?...These were the questions running through my horchata-rookie mind.

Ultimately, I decided to go with at least 8 hours. 8-10 hours seemed like a reasonable soaking time. (Well, I mean, I slept in on Saturday morning. So...)

The next day, I strained the water through a fine mesh sieve, making sure to also save the rice.

To be honest, I was already skeptical at this point. Murky rice water? Hmmm...I imagined that it would be like drinking the water from rinsing rice before cooking it...

Nevertheless, my challenge needed to be completed...*cue dramatic DUN DUN DUUUN*

I discarded the cinnamon stick pieces, then added the rice and 2 cups of the strained soaking water into a blender.

After just 25-30 seconds of pureeing, the mixture became completely white and appeared thicker/frothy. This was, essentially, homemade rice milk!

Okay, maybe some of that skepticism was beginning to wear off...I was officially intrigued.

I strained my freshly-made rice milk, adding it to the rest of the soaking water, and I once again saved the rice. (When I poked my finger in there to get a feel for it...because this is an "experiment", after all...the rice had been reduced to tiny, sand-like grains!)

This time, after returning the rice to the blender once again, I pureed it with the almond milk, vanilla extract, sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. Afterwards, I strained this sweetened almond milk mixture into the same bowl with the reserved soaking water/rice milk. (All of the liquids are now combined. Got it? Cool.)

The recipe that I was using originally called for whole milk (plus more water) and raw honey. Furthermore, other recipes that I read included evaporated milk, ground almonds, or just plain sugar. Now, I suppose, this is the part where personal preferences come into play and how authentic you'd like to be. I chose almond milk because I thought it added a subtle nutty flavor that accented the rice, and it seemed like a good compromise between using milk and starting with ground almonds. As for the sweetened condensed milk, I liked how the texture of the horchata became richer and creamier by adding a whole 14-oz can. Plus, it added sweetness without being too sharp or cloying. (I am in love with sweetened condensed milk.)

I also read about other homemade horchata fails, with most of the complaints being the same...Why is it so gritty?...People used everything from fine mesh sieves to cheesecloth to coffee filters. Yet, the grit remained. Ultimately, a fine mesh sieve worked perfectly fine for me. I just did one last strain after all of the liquids were combined.

After a few minutes, much of the rice "sediment" settled at the bottom of the bowl. I poured my final horchata mix through a fine mesh sieve and into a large pitcher. This step helped to make a much, much smoother horchata. Then, I chilled it in the refrigerator for about 1 hour before serving.

At last, the moment of truth came...I poured a glass for Jeremiah and anxiously awaited the verdict.

*cue dramatic DUN DUN DUUUN*

"Ah, there it is," he said.

*fist pump* *high-five*

My whole family was having a get-together at my house for Mother's Day weekend, and my Auntie Mel, Uncle Elvis, and cousin Miko were also hanging out with us. I poured my uncle and Miko (fellow horchata fanatics) a couple of glasses as well. They, too, gave me the satisfied nod of approval. (More fist pumps and high fives.) My uncle even sounded surprised, "Oh, hey...That's good." My sister, who doesn't even like horchata, thought that I did alright with my version. (Tiger Woods-level fist pump for that one.) As for me? I loved it! It tasted like a milder version of an iced chai tea latte. I even made a second batch the next day because we were going through the first one so quickly. It was smooth, subtly cinnamon-y, and incredibly refreshing during the 90 degree+ weekend.

Remember how I mentioned that you should go ahead and make big batches? Make some for backyard BBQ's or maybe for Taco Nights during the week! Have you ever tried making horchata from scratch? I'd love to hear about your experiences! :)

Homemade Horchata (makes approximately 1 gallon)

Print Recipe

2 cups White Long Grain Rice, uncooked
2 Cinnamon Sticks, broken into pieces
8 cups Water
4 cups Almond Milk
1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
1/2 cup White Granulated Sugar
1 14-oz can Sweetened Condensed Milk
  1. In a large bowl, rinse the rice by adding enough water to cover and stirring lightly with your hands. Drain the water. Then, add the 8 cups of water and the cinnamon stick pieces. Stir to combine, cover, and soak at room temperature overnight (8-12 hours).
  2. After soaking, discard the cinnamon stick pieces. Strain the water from the rice into another large bowl. Reserve the rice. 
  3. Place the reserved rice and 2 cups of the soaking water into a blender. Puree until thick and white, about 25-30 seconds. Again, strain the liquid (adding to the bowl of soaking water) and save the rice. Finally, combine the almond milk, vanilla extract, sugar, condensed milk, and the rice back in the blender. Puree to combine all of the ingredients (another 30 seconds), then strain the liquid into the bowl. Discard the rice.
  4. Strain this final mixture in the bowl, one last time, into a large pitcher. (For best results, use a fine mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth.)
  5. Chill the horchata in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
  6. Serve in glasses with ice, garnish with ground cinnamon (if desired), and enjoy!