Culinary Uses For The Agave Plant

agave americana

About

The agave plant is native to Mexico. For hundreds of years the plant has had a variety of culinary and medicinal uses. Even the fibers of the leaves are used to make twine, clothes and even shoes. This article focuses on the culinary uses of this sustainably grown plant.

History And Origination Of The Agave Plant

Also known as the Century Plant, the agave family includes over 200 species.  The word agave means Noble, clearly an apt description of a plant that can live to be forty years old and grow a flower stalk up to eighteen feet tall or more. Within this large family are two plants most notable for culinary use, the Agave Americana and Agave Deserti.  Both of these species are sometimes referred to as maguey.

Where Agave Originated

Most agave originated in Mexico. Today the edible varieties grow in Northern Mexico, California, New Mexico, Arizona and up into southern Utah. [1]

Early Culinary Uses

Aztecs

The Aztecs used agave to make pulque (a weakly alcoholic version) which was used for ceremonies and banquets.  Later the Spanish settlers used the fermented pulque to make mescal and tequila.  Women and men over 70 years old could consume as much as they wanted on these special occasions but alcohol was otherwise very controlled for the rest of the population.  It was socially acceptable to drink but not acceptable to be drunk. [3]

The Aztecs had other other uses for the agave as well including the making syrup, sugar, wine and vinegar.  In fact, remains of roasted agave were found in caves of the Tehuacan dating back to 6500 B.C. [2]

American Indians

The agave was an important food source of the Indians in the Southwestern U.S. According to John F. Mariani, the Apaches place agave crowns into a deep pit with with bear grass.  The pit was covered over with soil and and the crowns were roasted for two days.  As part of a complex ritual, the center of the crowns would be eaten and some stored for later use.  The native Americans also ate the cooked agave leaves like artichokes or sometimes they boiled the leaves down to make a syrup.

Culinary Uses Today

The products most visible to main stream consumers today would be tequila and agave nectar (agave syrup).  In fact four parts of the agave plant are still used today including the flowers, the leaves the basal rosettes and the sap.
agave flowers
Agave Flowers: image by :joshua lurie
Agave Flowers (Flor de Agave)
The agave plant flowers in the summer and each plant can produce several pounds of aromatic flowers.Both the flowers and the buds need to be boiled or steamed before they can be eaten.Once boiled the flowers can be battered and fried or added to scrambled eggs.It is recommended that the pollen tips (anthers) be removed before cooking to avoid a bitter flavor.

Look for agave flowers (flor de agave) in farmer's markets or Mexican produce markets.
roasted agave leaves
roasted agave leaves: victoria challancin
Agave Leaves
The agave leaves are harvested in the winter or spring when the sap content is the highest.The leaves are cut into large chunks and roasted or baked. The roasted leaves have a rich caramel flavor but are highly fibrous so the leaves are chewed and the left-over fibers are thrown out.
agave sap collecting
agave sap being harvested
Agave Sap
An agave must be at least six to eight years old before the sap can be harvested.The leaves are cut out of the center of the plant and sap is produced at a rate of about half gallon a week.The harvested sap, called agua miel (honey water) is sweet with a slight bitterness.The agave sap is either consumed fresh or boiled down to make syrup.If the sap sits more than a few hours it will begin to ferment.The fermented sap can be made into pulque or even vinegar.
agave hearts
unroasted agave hearts: crossingworlds.com
Basal Rosettes And Stalk
The agave plants are cut off at the base of the plant, the stalks and leaves are trimmed and removed and reveals the large agave heart.The trimmed heart looks a bit like a huge green pineapple.Today both the agave hearts and stalks are still roasted and eaten.Find roasted agave at Mexican Markets and some Farmer's Markets.
tequlia herradura Tequila And Mescal
Tequila and mescal are two distilled beverages made from the agave plant.Tequila is made from the blue agave (agave tequiliana) and mescal is made from the agave americana.Tequila is the number one distilled beverage in Mexico but as of 2008 the U.S. sales have exceeded even Mexico's annual sales.Several years ago Jose Cuervo was one of the few tequilas with any prominence in the U.S. but that has changed as the drink has become more popularized.Today boutique brands are widely available with prices exceeding $400 a bottle for aged tequilas.

The margarita is probably most well-known tequila drink and there are hundreds of variations.Other uses for tequila include marinades and a flavoring in sauces and some baked good.

Agave Nectar And Syrup

agave nectar

Agave Nectar which is also referred to as Agave Syrup is undoubtedly the most familiar of all agave food products. The product became quite popular in the early 2000's once it was designated as having a lower glycemic index than simple table sugar.

How Agave Nectar Is Produced

The agave nectar is made in two ways depending on the variety of the agave used.  Sap from the Agave salmiana is collected (aguamiel, honey water) and hydrolized with enzymes.  When the Agave Americana plant is used the juice is extracted from the plant core then heated and converted to a simple sugar. 

Types of Agave Nectar

Two basic varieties are dark (less processed) and light.  The dark has a more caramel-like flavor.

Where To Buy Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is ubiquitous today and and can be found in most any grocery or health food store.  The product shown is one we sold for years, imported directly from Mexico, bottled in beautiful hand-blown glass bottles.  The product is as high-quality as the packaging.

Agave Nectar Uses

Agave nectar can be in recipes that call for sugar, or syrup, or honey.  Given it is about 1.5 times sweeter you don't need to use as much sweetener as you would sugar or honey.  It is excellent for sweetening tea, coffee or even cold beverages because it dissolves almost immediately.

I love to pour dark agave nectar over Greek yogurt and walnuts.  This makes a fabulous dessert; just a slight variation of the Greek classic.

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Credits And Sources

Agave Roasting Pits - Early Californian's roasted agave leaves in long pits.

[1] Alan Davidson - The Oxford Companion To Food

[2] The Cambridge World History Of Food

[3] Sophie Coe - America's First Cuisines

author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.