Japanese Salt-Pickled Cherry Blossoms

I know it’s probably a little late now for cherry blossom buds unless you live fairly far north in the UK, but I’ve been sharing how to make these Japanese salted, pickled cherry blossom buds over on my Instagram stories and wanted to put together a post with all of the information in one place – so here goes!

Japanese preserved cherry blossoms are everywhere in Japan at this time of year during the Hanami cherry blossom celebrations. They are used to make a slightly salty, fragrant tea called sakurayu for special occasions such as weddings (after soaking to remove excess salt), and can be chopped and added to rice dishes and biscuits or used as a garnish in drinks. Since learning about these delicate, uniquely flavoured morsels, I’ve been keen to have a go at making them myself. Since moving to our new home last year I’ve noticed lots of gorgeous cherry trees on the residential roads near our house, so I set to foraging the buds when they were at the perfect stage (more on that below, don’t worry). I can’t wait to experiment with a few new recipes using the resulting blossoms!

The process of preserving the young cherry blossoms involves a few steps: gathering & washing, salting, pickling, and drying. There isn’t anything tricky about any of these steps, and the blossoms less fiddly to work with than you might expect when you pick them this young. The process is carried out over the space of a week, but most of the time is spent just waiting for them to do their thing.

Gathering

The cherry species that I would recommend for this recipe is the variety Prunus serrulata which can be identified by its fluffy, multi-petalled pink blooms and in particular their serrated edges. These are commonly planted as ornamental trees on residential roads and absolutely burst into a candy pink flurry in spring. These blossoms are edible with a beautiful subtle almond-like fragrance which works really well in syrups (try my recipe for Cherry Blossom Syrup in this post) and jams at any point while they’re in bloom. For our salted pickled cherry blossoms, however, we’re looking just for the buds that haven’t quite opened up yet.

Salting

The very first step, of course, it to carefully wash the blossoms to get rid of any dust or little bugs that might be hiding in them. Wash the blossoms gently with clean water and dry with a kitchen towel and finish off with kitchen paper to get as much water off as possible before moving on to the salting step. The salt will draw moisture out of the blossoms, and so we don’t want too much excess from our washing step to be hanging around.

Layer your cherry blossom buds with sea salt in a jar so that they have a decent covering. Seal your jar and leave in the fridge for 3 days for the salt to draw out the moisture from the buds.

Pickling

After the 3 days, gently wring out any excess brine and lightly rinse any remaining salt crystals. They will have reduced quite significantly in size, but don’t worry because when you come to use them in a recipe you don’t need a lot to get a good amount of their unique flavour.

At this point, the blossoms are typically soaked in ume plum vinegar which is a byproduct of making umeboshi, Japanese fermented, pickled plums. The vinegar has a lovely pink hue and quite a strong flavour, plus it’s naturally quite salty. I’ve used rice vinegar instead to pare back the flavour a bit and see if it’s a bit more subtle and less salty as I’d love to use my preserved blossoms in some sweet recipes to see if it works.

So here, just add rice vinegar, or ume plum vinegar if you like, to cover the blossoms and leave in the fridge for a further 3 days to pickle. You can try one after 3 days and if it’s quite bitter still you could leave it a little longer.

Drying

At this point we have salted and pickled our blossoms, so now we need to drain and dry them for storage. Drain the gorgeous, crimson vinegar off the blossoms and reserve it to use later in sushi or dipping sauces where the cherry blossom flavour will add a bit of interest or colour. Gently encourage the blossoms into their original shape and pat dry with kitchen paper – by now they will have a much deeper pink colour. Toss the blossoms with a teaspoon or so of fine sea salt (you could also try doing this step with sugar if you’d prefer an even sweeter result) and allow them to air dry overnight before storing in a sterile airtight jar. I actually finished mine off in the dehydrator for an hour or too, but took them out before they became too crisp and brittle. They will keep best in the fridge, but can be stored in a cool, dark place for a few months.

I think the first thing I want to try making with my preserved cherry blossoms is some scones with the blossoms chopped up into the dough as I think the sweet/salty combination will work really well and you can press a whole bud into the top to decorate them too. I wonder what else they could work well with? Perhaps some sort of sweet/salty cocktail or I wonder how they might work with something like a goat’s cheese? Let me know in the comments what you think I should try!

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