Horchata is one of Spain’s most traditional beverages, very much in demand during the summer months. It is a delicious and refreshing drink that looks like milk, and it is considered a nutritious product because of its high content in carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins C and E. It is obtained from the tigernut, a dried fruit or, more exactly, a tuber, which originated in Ancient Egypt and was introduced in Spain by the Arabs. Horchata is made through a mechanical process, which includes mashing, soaking and pressing the tigernuts.
Different types of horchata exist, depending on the treatment used to lengthen its shelf life. Sterilized, UHT or concentrated horchata may be found all year round. These different treatments allow it to be stored at room temperature during long periods of time, although they are responsible for differences in taste. Pasteurized horchata also exists. We will, however, focus on natural horchata which is the variety most appreciated for its taste, although it also deteriorates faster.
Natural horchata is highly perishable due to the fact that its primary ingredient, the tigernut, has a high microbial load that is difficult to eliminate and which, in part, is transferred to the horchata. When it is fresh, it is suitable and safe for human consumption if good hygiene practice is followed during the production process, which should include treating the tigernuts by submerging them in salt water, rehydrating and disinfecting them. Despite this treatment, the abundant microbial flora present in horchata increases in storage. Besides this, it has a high starch and sugar content, which in theory turns it into a foodstuff that may be altered quickly.
Two basic procedures must be used to keep this product safe. One is its storage temperature: natural horchata should be kept at a maximum temperature of 2ºC (35.6ºF). Another is how much time has gone by since it was made, because the longer it is, the more possibilities of its being altered. Storing horchata in retail establishments at incorrect temperatures of over 2ºC is the main cause of alteration. So, if you wish to enjoy this gastronomic jewel, the best advice is to check that natural horchata is refrigerated properly and, if you intend to take it home, buy only the amount you are able to drink in one day, and do not break the cold chain.
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