The pop­u­lar bev­er­age can be made with much more than rice as long as you know your science.

Los Angeles Times - - SATURDAY - By Arielle John­son John­son was the res­i­dent sci­en­tist at Noma in Copen­hagen and is now a re­searcher at the MIT Me­dia Lab in Cam­bridge, Mass. She holds a PhD in fla­vor chem­istry. food@la­times.com

A per­fect sum­mer­time drink, horchata — most fa­mil­iar as the sweet­ened, slightly gritty iced bev­er­age found at taque­rias — is wildly pop­u­lar through­out Puerto Rico, Cen­tral Amer­ica and cen­tral and south­ern Mex­ico through the Yu­catán Penin­sula. In the U.S., the Mex­i­can style of horchata pre­dom­i­nates, made from rice that is soaked, ground, pul­ver­ized, strained and dressed up in sweet and some­times spicy ac­ces­sories, most of­ten cin­na­mon. Think of it as the orig­i­nal alt-milk.

At Gue­laguetza, ar­guably L.A.’s premier horchata des­ti­na­tion, the drink is its No. 1 seller and has been on the menu since the res­tau­rant first opened in 1994. The Lopez fam­ily hon­ors the Oax­a­can style of the drink by serv­ing it con tuna y nuez, that is to say, as a drink made of rice and cin­na­mon, with prickly pear purée, melon chunks and nuts.

“There isn’t a wrong or right way to make horchata,” says Gue­laguetza co-owner El­iz­a­beth Lopez. “Some peo­ple have the per­cep­tion of horchata as be­ing a very sweet and milky drink, while oth­ers think of it as a re­fresh­ing and light refreshment.”

In­deed, in ad­di­tion to rice, hor­chatas can also be made from al­monds or other nuts, grains, even seeds like pump­kin or sesame.

Latin Amer­i­can hor­chatas are ac­tu­ally an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a much older drink (the orig­i­nal horchata) from Va­len­cia, Spain, which is made not from a grain or a nut but rather lo­cal nut-like tu­bers called chu­fas or tiger­nuts. Horchata also has a culinary (and et­y­mo­log­i­cal) cousin in orgeat, the al­mond-based syrup used in mai tais and other cock­tails. Even fur­ther back, the an­cient an­ces­tor and eponym (based on the Latin word hordeum for bar­ley) of both horchata and orgeat is bar­ley wa­ter, the zeit­geisty au courant drink of 600 BC, made by soak­ing, grind­ing and strain­ing bar­ley grains.

Casilda Flores Mo­rales, the late Oax­a­can horchata ma­tri­arch, earned the ep­i­thet “em­press of refreshment, the heiress of the alchemy and se­crets of al­mond, chi­la­cay­ota and chia.”

Hor­chatas are straight­for­ward to make and an ex­cel­lent can­vas for re­fresh­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Con­sider the al­mondy neo-horchata-plus-cold-brew bev­er­age called Hor­chof­fee at Jes­sica Koslow’s East Hol­ly­wood toast shop Sqirl. What con­nects all th­ese di­verse hor­chatas, and can help you at­tain em­press-of-refreshment skills your­self, are the phe­nom­ena of ex­trac­tion and sus­pen­sion.

Horchata man­ages to be creamy with­out con­tain­ing any milk or cream. Creami­ness, as fans of al­mond milk and co­conut yo­gurt are aware, doesn’t ac­tu­ally re­quire dairy, but rather the thick­en­ing ef­fect of hav­ing large mol­e­cules of starch, pro­tein and/or fat sus­pended in a back­ground of wa­ter.

On a molec­u­lar level, horchata-mak­ing is about grind­ing, soak­ing and blend­ing rice, al­monds, seeds, chu­fas, etc. to en­cour­age their fat, starch and/or pro­tein mol­e­cules to mi­grate into the wa­ter you’re blend­ing them with, and to float there as a thick­ened, milky-creamy mix­ture known as a sus­pen­sion. Sus­pen­sions with es­pe­cially tiny par­ti­cles, like hor­chatas, will re­main in this float­ing, opaci­fied, vis­cous state in­def­i­nitely.

Starch, pro­tein and fats in­ter­act with wa­ter dif­fer­ently, lead­ing to dif­fer­ences in the sus­pen­sions they form. This means that the tex­ture of a given horchata will vary de­pend­ing on its base in­gre­di­ent. Fat mol­e­cules, in their pure state, are loath to mix with wa­ter and will separate into dis­tinct lay­ers like a bro­ken vinai­grette. The fats in nuts and seeds, how­ever, are fit­ted with tiny coats of pro­tein, which is much hap­pier to mix with wa­ter. Fatty seeds and ker­nels will make the creami­est hor­chatas — al­mond, sesame and squash seeds are all tra­di­tional ex­am­ples.

Starches are the main agent in Oax­a­can, Va­len­cian and other grain- and tu­ber-based hor­chatas. Free starch mol­e­cules will mix with and thicken wa­ter, but in­side the plant parts that make starches, like grains of rice, the mol­e­cules are glued and lam­i­nated to­gether into ag­gre­gates called starch gran­ules. Th­ese gran­ules will grab onto wa­ter and swell up a bit but won’t un­spool ex­cept at high tem­per­a­tures. In starchy hor­chatas, the starch grains are de­tectable on the tongue; so a rice (or bar­ley or other grains with which you choose to ex­per­i­ment) horchata will al­ways be a lit­tle grit­tier, a lit­tle less creamy, and more likely to set­tle out than one based on fat­tier nuts or seeds.

A word of warn­ing: Heat helps speed up ex­trac­tion and can be quite use­ful for ef­fi­cient horchata-mak­ing. But while al­monds and seeds can stand up to near-boil­ing tem­per­a­tures, over­heat a starchy horchata and you’ll un­spool the starch gran­ules com­pletely re­sult­ing in horchata-fla­vored glue. Stick to wa­ter tem­per­a­tures be­low 140 de­grees Fahren­heit.

Horchata can be made from al­most any seed, grain and nut prod­uct, not just rice. One recipe to get your cre­ative juices flow­ing is in­spired by a less-fa­mous Mex­i­can style of horchata made us­ing in­dige­nous squash seeds. It be­haves a bit like an al­mond milk, has a lovely light green color, and can be adapted to use other nuts and seeds like peanuts and sesame.

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