Rose Water vs. Vanilla:
the long lost flavour of Western baking

A brass pot of nut milk steeped with rose petals, surrounded by dried rose buds and petals.

Not all bakers are the same. There are those who bake with milk and honey and those who are strictly vegan, while others experiment with all the grain-free flour alternatives out there. But there’s still one ingredient that the majority of bakers have in common. Whether pure, natural, or an artificial essence, vanilla is a pantry staple. But believe it or not, vanilla was not always an essential ingredient. 


Life through Rose Water Coloured Glasses

Back before the 1800s, it was rose water that was added to all Western baking. This practice came out of The Crusades, and after venturing to the Middle East the Crusaders developed a taste for the perfumed elixir. Rose water quickly became the necessary ingredient in all baked goods. 

Its popularity was driven by the fact that roses could be grown in Europe and North America. Anyone who baked could very easily infuse water with roses from their own backyard. Vanilla, on the other hand, is native to Mexico. If travelers ever did bring vanilla North, it would have been very expensive. 

Rose water was in everything. Cakes, gingerbread, puddings, French macaroons, and even beverages were topped up with this perfumed tincture. Sandy Oliver, a colonial food historian, has said that the taste of America in the 18th century was rose water, cream, and sherry. This is very different from the palettes of North America today. (In 2016 the New York Post published an article on the 8 flavors that define America and yes, vanilla is on there. So is MSG.)

So what changed? How did we go from dousing everything with the perfumed water of English roses to switching over to the creamy and spicy bean pod of Mexico? 

Homemade rosewater cardamom cookies topped with icing and dried rose petals.
(Photo from Cardamom and Tea)

The End of a Rosie Era

Before 1841, no one had succeeded in mass-producing vanilla. Other crops thrived under the influence of agriculture, but farmers and botanists couldn’t figure out how to make the vanilla vine produce fruit at a faster rate. They were dependent on the slow and natural process of pollinators. 

Enter Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old African slave. Working on a plantation, he miraculously discovered what no one else could — how to hand pollinate vanilla. (To learn more about this incredible and untold story, read National Geographic’s illustrated history of the event).

With this discovery, the vanilla industry rapidly expanded. Vanilla was toted as a miracle spice: a calmer of stomach aches, a curer of snake bites, and an aphrodisiac. As it became more available, demand for it grew. And so the long-lasting reign of rose water was finally overcome by the vanilla bean. Once a staple in every kitchen, rose water is now rarely found in Western baking.Pistachio rosewater cake with two slices cut out, topped with thick icing and garnished with dried rose petals.
(Photo from  My Name is Yeh)

Modern Baking

If you’re an avid baker today, then you’ve probably noticed the steep jump in the price of vanilla. There is currently a global shortage of vanilla because its largest producer, Madagascar, was not able to meet crop expectations. The cause? The strongest cyclone that Madagascar has seen in over a decade ripped through the island, depleting a third of its vanilla crop. Simultaneously, the global demand for vanilla continues to grow. 

As a result, the price of vanilla has skyrocketed. A kilo of vanilla is now $700— and it was only $40 in 2011! Vanilla is now the second most expensive spice on the planet (second to saffron). What are sweet-toothed baking enthusiasts to do? 

You know what I’m about to say. It’s time to go back to our baking roots and bring rose water into the kitchen again.

If you’re a skeptic who thinks rose water should be kept in perfume bottles, then check out this rose water intro on Epicurious. You can start small and test the rosie waters by dressing up your morning yogurt, or jump right in and make some pistachio rose rhubarb galettes.  If you want to keep the elixir in liquid form, try a sesame rose milk or rooibos iced tea. And while you’re at it, why not stay local and check out The Joya Life’s very own recipe for Strawberry Cardamom Rose Creamsicles. 

So fret not, my baking babes and bros, over these alarming vanilla prices. Sometimes we just need to look back in history in order to move forwards. 


(Header image from Local Milk)