Carbonated and artificially sweetened beverages are falling out of favor. Today, more people want healthy, nutritious options made with fresh ingredients. One way to achieve this quickly and affordably is agua frescas, water-based beverages flavored with fruits, vegetables or herbs. “The best thing about these items is that the product cost is so low; you just need nice cold tap water with a few pieces of fruit,” explains Chris Basmagy, assistant director of nutrition services at Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University, in Columbus, who offers agua frescas in flavors like cucumber and orange. “After the initial investment of some beverage dispensers, the product is almost free and the presentation is excellent.”
Peter Fischbach, regional director of culinary development for Gourmet Dining, set up a hydration station serving flavored water in nearly two dozen flavors, such as citrus-ginger, cucumber-mint, cilantro-lime, blueberry-pomegranate and even savory flavors like tomato-basil. “We wanted to offer people who didn’t like sugary drinks a healthier option, other than plain old water,” Fischbach explains.
Flik Independent School Dining can relate. It recently launched a healthy beverage program called WaterWorks to bring attention to the importance of hydration and highlight the concept of subtle flavors: real flavors the palate can experience, instead of additives, says Susan Cooper, nutrition specialist. The program includes 12 flavors using ingredients like berries, melon and herbs. “Younger students love the orange and berry flavors, [which] are sweeter and familiar, more similar to juice,” Cooper explains. “Older students experiment with more exotic flavors, like tropical fruit and rosemary.”
All three operators serve the waters in a clear vessel to showcase the fresh ingredients inside. “People love the way it looks [as much as they] love the way it tastes,” Cooper says. Simply fill the dispenser halfway with fruit, herbs or vegetables and the remaining half with ice. Then add filtered water. It sounds simple—and it is—but there are a few key tips to keep in mind.
• Double wash all ingredients, Cooper advises.
• If kept below 40°F, agua frescas can be prepared up to 24 hours before service. However, to keep the water crisp and not muddled down and bitter, always keep the ice full, Fischbach says. “Ice keeps the herbs and fruit in a cryostasis state, meaning the oils are released, but the bitterness in the pith, seeds and stems stays locked in, ensuring the water never gets bitter.”
• Discard all flavored waters after service and never reuse fresh ingredients, Cooper says. Thoroughly clean dispenser after each use.