I Don't Know What I'm Doing But: I'ma Make Some Rosewater

How I made rosewater -- in just three tries.
Publish date:
June 14, 2011
gardening, natural cosmetics, rosewater

See this pretty atomizer? My mother gave it to me probably more than a decade ago and until now, it has sat (mostly) unused.

Today the temparature is predicted to hit the high nineties, and I spent the morning in a ballet class that seemed to be veering perilously close to that by 9 a.m. (Bikram ballet is not yet a trend, I hope; the air-conditioning was broken). Then I came home, and spritzed myself with the contents of this bottle: ice cold, beautifully scented, deep rose-colored rosewater.

What else can I do with it? Mixed with a little glycerin, witch hazel or even vodka, it can become a toner. Rosewater is also the main ingredient in BeneTint, the classic lip and cheek stain (though the crimson color comes from carmine, made from crushed beetles, an ingredient I am unlikely to be making at home). Mix it with an equal amount of sugar and simmer for 15 or so minutes to a make simple syrup to stir into cocktails, plain seltzer or drizzle over fruit. Later this weekend, I’m planning to make these rosewater cupcakes for my birthday party. Hell, if I am feeling super ambitious and/or magnanimous, I could also follow this recipe from the Hairpin and make someone this rosewater vanilla wedding cake.

This rosewater, however, did not come easily. I have a summer garden -- the details of which make a good D.I.Y. story that I will save for a later time -- and between now and, oh, October or so, I thought I’d try to make products out of things I’ve grown.

The roses seemed perfect: Who ever expects roses to produce anything? They are the pre-feminist beauties of the garden -- no one expects them to do anything but smell sweet, look lovely and die young.

Most recipes for rosewater calls for organic roses and distilled water. This sounds fussy, but makes sense: Since you are distilling the essence of the petals, using chemically treated roses could result in a refreshing batch of eau de pesticide.

Purists insist that the best way to make rosewater is to steam distill it. First you put a brick (or ramekin, dish, or any other heat-proof object) into the bottom of a large pot. Scatter the rose petals around the pot. They should at least reach the top of the the elevated object. Here is my first try:

Next you pour in distilled water just to the top of the roses, and place a small heatproof bowl on top of the ramekin. Then you invert the pot lid and turn up the heat. When the water boils, you bring it down to a simmer, and start piling ice on the pot lid.

The physics here goes something like this: The hot steam rises, hits the cold pot lid, then condenses down into your little bowl, now as tasty, beautifully scented rose water.

Miserable failure, take one: Do not skimp on ice. Day one, I figured I’d be OK with the six trays of ice I had stashed at home -- until my pot lid was a mass of boiling water 20 minutes into my first batch. Day two, I went ahead and bought a 10-pound bag of ice from the store. It did not go to waste.

Miserable failure,take two: Freshness counts. Some recipes claim that rosewater can be made from completely dried petals, which would be awesome: One could admire a bouquet, then eat it, too. For my first batch, I put a little pot under my rosebush and just gathered the petals as they fell off throughout the week. But with my first batch, the smell was ... grassy? Musty? For my second batch, I scavenged nothing and took the petals straight from the bush. The moral: Smell your roses. This is what your rosewater will smell like.

General alert to clumsy people like myself: Over the course of your simmer, you will have to gently pick up the lid, carry it to the sink and drain the melted ice water. While doing so, take care not to knock over the center bowl, as I did during batch number two, thus spilling all my scented water back into the pot.

If this all sounds like way too much work: The quick and easy version is essentially a rosewater tea: Pour boiling water over the roses to cover, let it steep until the roses lose their color -- at least an hour, or overnight -- then strain. The rosewater will be more diluted and not smell or taste quite a strong, but it will be much brighter red. In fact, the bright red rosewater I have in the atomizer is the remnants of my second batch, when I realized that the water left in the pot was still useful. The steam-distilled rosewater was nearly clear, with only a hint of pale pink in the light.

Will I do it again? Oh hell, yes. I am nothing if not stubborn, so all the pain just makes me want to try it again. Steam distillation works for pretty much any herb or flower, so I definitely have a roving eye on the rest of the garden.