Preserved Cherry Blossoms
and Sakura Vinegar
Share this Recipe
Sakura – Japanese cherry blossoms – are a bountiful spring delight that disappears all-too-soon. Fortunately, you can capture some of that beauty and enjoy it in your own cooking. This simple multi-day recipe uses salt and vinegar to preserve tangy, mildly-sweet sakura blossoms, which can then be used in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. As an added bonus, the recipe also produces a versatile, lightly almond-scented vinegar that’s a beautiful shade of reddish pink.
This would normally be the part of the recipe where I include a little essay, science discussion, or bit of history. Things started out that way with this post, but morphed to the point where the original article has warranted its own separate post. That post, which I do hope you’ll take a look at, is about hanami (Japanese flower viewing), and the importance sharing beauty with the people we love. You can read it here.
As for the recipe (this is a food blog, after all), I hope you’ll be encouraged to try this fascinating bit of preserving out for yourself. Preserved cherry blossoms are fairly easy to buy online (or in person, if you have a well-stocked Japanese grocery store around), but homemade versions are more versatile in their use, and often more beautifully coloured. The recipe involves fairly low effort input spread out over the course of a week, and you get bonus sakura vinegar out of it (more on that below).
If you’re here looking for tips about the ingredients or the methodology for preserving cherry blossoms, I’ve definitely got you covered. The recipe (which you can jump to) is detailed, and the Recipe Notes section has additional helpful pointers and clarifications.
Enjoy capturing spring in a jar.
If you’re new to pickling, preserving, or foraging, I can understand how a recipe like this might seem a little intimidating, but this is actually a very simple project. It does take a fair bit of time (nearly a week), but the vast majority of that time is idle. The actual hands-on steps are easy, and there are plenty of notes below to help you figure things out. And let’s not forget, the first step is to go out and pick blossoms from a spectacular cherry tree. As first steps go, it sure beats chopping onions.
Choosing Cherry Blossoms
Working with cherry blossoms is pretty straightforward, though the first step is obviously getting the flowers themselves. First and foremost, you need to be sure that you can actually identify cherry blossoms. This isn’t really all that difficult, but don’t automatically assume that any tree blooming in the spring is a cherry tree. Flowering plum and almond both bloom quite early in the year (more on these in the paragraph below). Incidentally, both are also relatively close relatives of the cherry. Fruiting (i.e. non-ornamental) cherry trees also bloom early, though their flowers are usually white and smaller than their decorative cousins. The most commonly planted ornamental cherry species worldwide is the Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata), though the blossoms of all cherry species are edible. Of course, if you’ve got a fruit-bearing cherry tree, you might not want to pick the flowers for eating, as you’ll reduce fruit production.
Single-flowering Japanese cherry (sakura). Note that this variety blooms fully before growing any leaves.
Double-flowering Japanese cherry (sakura). Note the fuller, rose-like blooms.
There are numerous cultivars of Japanese cherry, but for our culinary purposes, we’ll just talk about two basic forms: single-flowering, and double-flowering (both shown above). Single-flowering cherries produce a ‘typical’ looking cherry blossom with five petals surrounding a central region with numerous thin stamens and a central stigma. Double-flowering varieties result from mutations that cause some of the stamens to be replaced partially or entirely by petals, resulting in a fuller, rose-like appearance. The similarity is no coincidence mind you; the many-petaled roses found in bouquets and gardens are themselves the result of double-flowering mutations. Wild roses (and some garden roses) are single-flowering, and look quite a bit like big cherry blossoms. This isn’t a coincidence either, as roses and cherries (along with all other Prunus stonefruits, apples, strawberries, and more) are all members of the botanical family Rosaceae. It’s worth noting that the flowers of plum, apricot, ume (a Japanese apricot species), almond, and other members of the genus Prunus (including the numerous hybrids) are all edible, so if you do get a bit mixed up between closely related flowers, you’re ok. In general, you’re most likely to encounter confusion between double-flowering cherry and double-flowering plum, as these are the most similar looking and common of the ornamental spring-flowering trees. I’ve included pictures of fruit-bearing cherry blossoms and the blooms of the double-flowering plum below for added help with identification.
As with all foraged food, it’s important to be sure of your identification skills. If you’re not sure what you’re eating, don’t eat it.
White flowers from a fruit-bearing cherry species.
Flowers from a double-flowering plum tree. Note that these tend to bloom a little earlier than cherry.
Alright, let’s say you’ve got some definitively ID’ed trees to work with – now what? First and most importantly, make sure that you’re confident that the trees have been grown free of insecticides or any other pesticides. Flowering cherry trees in public spaces are generally left to their own devices, but it is worth noting that cherries (especially fruit-bearing, commercially produced ones) are sometimes treated with insecticides and fungicides. This is not generally done during the blossoming stage, but if you have any reason to question whether or not there might be pesticide residues on your flowers, you’re probably better off seeking out another tree. The best, safest bets are generally going to be personal trees in yards and along residential streets, where all chemical spraying is generally avoided.
The final thing to consider is which blossoms to pick. You want to choose the blossoms that are just starting to open up – not tightly closed, but not in full flower either. These bell-shaped blooms will have a delicately sweet flavour and fragrance, and they’ll hold together best when preserved. The picture below shows you what I mean, though you could go a little more closed than the ones I chose (I was about a day past the optimum time). Double-flowering blossoms will look a bit more closed and compact at this stage because of the extra petals. If you do get some open flours or closed buds when you’re picking, there’s no harm in using those as well.
Preserving sakura takes a bit of time, but very little effort. The steps are broken down in detail in the main recipe below, but I’ll cover some of the key points here as well.
- Washing – I’ve seen some recipes that call for washing the blossoms repeatedly in multiple changes of water, but unless you have an especially dirty tree (which would be… odd), this shouldn’t be necessary. A single gentle wash in clean water should be sufficient for removing any dust and dirt. If you happen to have a bit of luck on your side, try to pick the flowers after it rains, and you’ll barely have to wash them at all. A salad spinner is handy for (gently) drying the washed blossoms, but you can lay them flat to dry on a soft cloth too.
- Salting – Layer some of the flowers in the bottom of a glass jar (or other nonreactive container), and sprinkle with sea salt. A flaky sea salt is best, but a very fine granular sea salt or pickling salt will work too. I would avoid iodized table salt, as iodine can cause pickled and preserved foods to darken over time. Repeat this process with additional layers of flowers and salt.
- Waiting – Nothing fancy to do here – just let the flowers sit in the fridge for three days. You can give them a little shake if you think the salt is clumping up in the corners, but don’t fret about it too much. Some recipes encourage you to press the flowers down with a weight in order to keep them submerged in the developing brine, but I don’t think it’s necessary in this case. We’re not fermenting the flowers (at least not substantially), and the relatively small quantity we’re using doesn’t produce a lot of liquid. Plus, you want to leave the blossoms as intact as possible for a more attractive finished product. After the first three days have passed, add the vinegar(s) and wait another three days.
- Handling the Finished Blossoms – Once the flowers are done, drain and reserve the vinegar (it should be a beautiful pink/red by now), then gently lay the flowers out on a large tray.* Grasp a flower by the stem and then, using the fingertips of your other hand, carefully pull the flower petals down, away from the stems, and back into the bell-like shape they started out in. Be gentle, but note that the flowers are actually more durable than you might think at this stage. Lay them out on whatever drying surface you’re using (see the next section for more on this). The whole process is time consuming, but easy enough. It’s a good excuse to, say, watch a virtual hanami video on repeat.
*Note: if you choose to leave the flowers pickled in the brine, you don’t have to do anything after the waiting stage is finished. Just enjoy the flowers at your leisure.
Drying Methods & Variations
The photos shown in this article show flowers that have been thoroughly dried in a dehydrator, without the addition of extra preserving salt. I realize that many of you won’t have a dehydrator though, so I’ve included multiple other methods in the main recipe card. Each method has its pros and cons, and I encourage you to read through the variations to decide what will work best for you, but I want to take a moment to discuss the two general ‘end goals’ you can aim for:
- Fully Dried – Dehydrating, air-drying, and oven-drying are all intended to create shelf-stable, fully-dried flowers, with good colour, though they can be used to create partially dried flowers too (see point #2). The blossoms are a bit more fragile in this format, but they’re also nicely versatile. Because there’s no need to add more salt, the flowers are also a bit easier to use in sweet dishes, which is handy. Do note that it’s important to maintain a very low temperature when drying the flowers, as they’ll turn brown and plain looking if exposed to high heat.
- Partially dried – Using any of the basic drying methods, the goal here is to dry the flowers to the point where they’ve lost most of their moisture, but still remain soft and somewhat flexible. These flowers can then be tossed with the extra salt (as noted in the recipe) and stored at room temperature or in the fridge. These flowers tend to look a little more ‘lively’ than the full dried flowers, though they are more significantly salty. The partially dried flowers are nice in savoury dishes, as they hold together well and add a flavourful hit of salt. They’re harder to use in sweet dishes, but are still fairly versatile. The extra salt can be (gently!) rinsed from the flowers immediately before use if necessary.
Finally, I should note that you have the option of not drying the flowers at all. The finished blossoms can be left in the vinegar and used as a pickle. They’re at virtually zero risk of spoiling in this format, but the colour will fade a bit over time, and the sour vinegar taste will be more prominent. Pickled flowers are nice with seafood, rice, and other dishes where the vinegar flavour is complimentary.
For more notes on variations with the vinegar, see the next section.
Sakura Vinegar & Umezu Variation
The vibrant cherry-coloured vinegar that you get from this recipe is a wonderful bonus, and a fantastic ingredient to cook with in its own right. Many traditional preserved sakura recipes specify that you use umezu (Japanese plum vinegar) rather than rice vinegar to pickle the flowers, but I’ve modified that here for a couple of reasons. Umezu is the byproduct of making umeboshi, which are small, brine-pickled, under-ripe ume fruits.* Preserving sakura blossoms in umezu alone will yield a VERY salty product. That’s not a problem per se; heavily salted sakura blossoms are a good, strong addition to mild savoury dishes. On the other hand, this recipe yields less-salty (but still well-preserved) cherry blossoms that can easily be used for both sweet or savoury applications. Because there’s no need to discard the salty brine used to cure the blossoms (a necessary step when using umezu alone), you also have an easier pickling process, plus you retain more of the colour and delicate almond aroma of the blossoms. The finished sakura vinegar is salted, but not nearly as heavily as umezu. This is an advantage, as it allows you to use a bit more of the vinegar (and it’s delicate almond scent) without overwhelming any dishes with salt. I even use a little of the vinegar in my sakura sabure (shortbread) recipe, which I’ll be sharing soon.
If you do want to make a saltier, umezu-based recipe, the modification involves two steps – 1) rinse, and drain the brined flowers (after step three in the main recipe) to remove as much of the salt as possible, and 2) omit the rice vinegar and use about 1/2 cup of umezu in its place. The finished blossoms will be saltier, and they lack some of the almond flavour that gets rinsed away after the initial brining steps, but can still be dried or left as pickles in the vinegar. When dried and pulverized, these umezu-based pickled sakura make a lovely pink salt that can be used to garnish and flavour a variety of dishes. The leftover vinegar, however, will be VERY salty thanks to the umezu and what remains of the brining salt, and I would only use it very sparingly. Instead, you could try mixing in an equal volume of rice vinegar (or even more, to taste) to yield a flavourful but less-heavily salted finished vinegar for cooking.
*Ume (Prunus mume) is a very close relative of the apricot , though the term ‘plum’ is more commonly (and erroneously) used in English. Japanese plum wine, pickled plums, plum vinegar, and Chinese plum sauce are all made with ume.
Storing & Using Your Sakura
The finished preserved flowers are quite resistant to spoilage, though how you keep them (and for how long) will depend somewhat on how you dry them. I dried mine quite thoroughly in a dehydrator, which yields a product that can sit at room temperature in a sealed jar for up to a year. If you leave them just a little more moist and add extra salt for preservation, they’ll still keep quite well at room temperature for 6 months or so. If kept in the fridge, they’ll last even longer. Pickled flowers (i.e. those left in the vinegar/brine) will last in the refrigerator for a year, but I would recommend using them within a month or two, as they’ll start to lose their colour.
Dry flowers can be used in a variety of sweet or savoury dishes. Crumbled up, they make a beautiful and flavourful ‘cherry salt’ that can be used on rice, with fish, or in cookies and cakes. Whole flowers are beautiful when pressed into small appetizers or cookies.
The sakura vinegar will keep well in the fridge, and can be used to add flavour anywhere that you’d use a regular vinegar – though do note that it will add salt as well. It’s particularly beautiful and delicious when used to flavour sushi rice.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for approximately 1 tbsp of dried blossoms (1/50th portion of the total recipe, excluding the vinegar).
Given the relatively small quantity used in any given recipe and the low nutrient density of the ingredients themselves, preserved cherry blossoms and/or sakura vinegar will contribute fairly minimally to any recipe. While there is some salt to consider, the quantities we’re talking about here are unlikely to make a substantial impact.
Using more umezu (see notes above) or the optional added salt for preserving the pickled blossoms will yield saltier end products.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Preserved Sakura Cherry Blossoms - 桜の塩漬け
- 1.75 oz sakura (cherry blossoms) (about 5 cups, very loosely packed) see note
- 2 tsp sea salt preferably a flaky or very fine type
- 1 cup rice vinegar
- 2 tsp umezu (plum vinegar) optional (see note)
Added Salt (for storage - optional)
- 1 tsp sea salt
- Pick unsprayed cherry blossoms from an ornamental cherry tree. The best flowers to use are the ones that are just starting to open, so try to time your picking with the early blossoming stages.
- Very gently wash the flowers by soaking them in clean water and stirring lightly with your hands. Lay the flowers out to dry, or give them a quick and gentle spin with a salad spinner.
- Gently sprinkle layers of flowers with sea salt in a small jar. Refrigerate for 3 days.
- Cover the flowers with vinegar and refrigerate for an additional 3 days.
- If pickling, simply leave the flowers in the vinegar and transfer both to the refrigerator. They will keep for 6 months or more, but the flowers will become less vibrant over time.
- If drying, drain and reserve vinegar. Spread the flowers out to dry. They can be air-dried, or dried in a very low oven or dehydrator (see variations below, and the note section at the bottom regarding the final dryness of the flowers).
- Spread the blossoms out on a small tray or board covered with a soft tea towel or cloth. Place the flowers in a warm, dry area, but out of direct sunlight. Check on the flowers once a day or so (actual drying time will depend on warmth and humidity, but three days is average).
Oven Drying (Bread Proof Setting)
- Spread the flowers out on a large cookie sheet covered with a silicon sheet or parchment paper.
- Place the flowers in the oven and turn on the bread proof setting. This setting will use only the heat of the oven light and the fan to create an even, moderately warm environment. Check on the flowers at the end of the day, and, if necessary, leave overnight or repeat the warming steps daily until the flowers are dried out.
Oven Drying (Low Temperature)
- NOTE: while this option is the fastest, it's also the riskiest. Only attempt this If your oven can be set to a very low temperature. Make sure you keep an extremely close eye on the blossoms as they dry.
- Spread the flowers out on a large cookie sheet covered with a silicon sheet or parchment paper.
- Place the tray into the low-temperature oven and 'bake' for about 5 minutes. Once the obvious surface moisture has evaporated, proceed to the next step.
- Turn the oven off, but leave the blossoms in the oven on the pan. Check for dryness, and repeat the heating/cooling process again as needed.
- Spread the blossoms out on a dehydrator tray. Cover with a thin towel or another dehydrator tray (the aim is to keep the light flowers from blowing away - take care not to crush them). Dry at low temperature (about 35°C/95°F) for 6-8 hours, or until the flowers are finished.
- If you choose to dry your cherry blossoms to a point where they still have a moderate amount of moisture, you can gently toss them in an additional 5 g (1 tsp) of sea salt. This will obviously make them taste saltier, though this is beneficial for many savoury recipes that call for preserved sakura. Blossoms that are completely dehydrated will keep very well without any additional salting.
Storage (All Methods)
- Dried blossoms (either fully dried or partially dried and with added salt) can be stored at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. They will keep for a year. Sakura vinegar will keep in the fridge for 6 months or more, as will pickled blossoms.
I shared this in the separate introductory post to this recipe, but I thought I’d share it here too. This short video is a little virtual hanami (Japanese flower viewing), accompanied by the traditional Japanese folk song Sakura Sakura played on the ukulele by me (you can decide for yourself whether I’m bragging or warning you). I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it gets you in the sakura spirit.