Bitters: Cooking with Moxie

Explore and cook with the bountiful benefits of bitter herbs.

| March/April 2004

All of this fact-finding began because I like bitters and I use them on a regular basis in cooking — I feel bitters enhance the flavors of certain foods. Many years ago, I took a cooking class with the French chef and cookbook author Madelaine Kamman. Along with her kitchen politics, Kamman gave her students a tidbit of advice that I have put in many a pot. She tasted the soup she was cooking, held up a little bottle of Angostura bitters and said something to the effect of, “If what you are cooking tastes like it needs a little something else, add some of these.” Following her recommendation, I went out and bought a bottle of bitters and have been enjoying them ever since.

Nonetheless, the suggestion of sprinkling Angostura bitters on ice cream did raise my eyebrow. But for the sake of research, I was willing to experiment. The reason the ice cream/bitters combination works is because the opposites complement each other.

Bitterness is a large part of taste in humans, but our bitter taste buds are underdeveloped. On our tongues, we have the sensory traits for tasting sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Most of us have overdeveloped our tastes for sweet and salt, and we use and enjoy some sour, but use very little bitter. By adding bitter and/or sour tastes to a dish or menu, your palate will be better balanced. This will give you new taste sensations, stimulate your palate and appetite, as well as give you a new awareness of flavor.

Coleslaw, for example, covers all four taste sensations. Sweetness is attained by the cabbage, carrots and sometimes sugar. Sour is introduced by vinegar. Salt is added to the cabbage and the dressing. And bitter is provided by a little grated onion, celery seed and paprika, which is both sweet and bitter.

I find when a sauce, soup, dressing or a pot of beans needs “a little something,” a few drops of bitters usually does the trick, but too much is reminiscent of cough syrup. Because bitters are a strong flavoring agent, you might want to use just a dash or two to begin with. I especially like the taste of bitters in beans; I rarely make a pot without adding bitters, and they always go in bean soup. Soups and stews improve in flavor when bitters are added toward the end of cooking. The aromatic properties of bitters enhance dressings, sauces and dips, especially those that are mayonnaise- and dairy-based. Deviled eggs; potato, chicken, egg or tuna salad; bean or vegetable dips with sour cream; herb or vegetable cream-cheese spreads; white or cheese sauces; and marinades are all enhanced by a few dashes of bitters.

In my investigative mode, I’ve tried bitters on ice cream (best on vanilla), in orange juice, pineapple juice, tomato juice, lemonade, beer, tomato sauce, tomato soup, gazpacho, potato soup and straight off the palm of my hand. I liked them all. Tasting it straight, Angostura bitters at first taste sweet, before the bitter takes over. I’ve actually come to enjoy about six to eight drops in soda water over ice for a drink to quench thirst. I also drink this quite often in the evening (without the ice) as a nightcap, especially if I have eaten late (or eaten too much).

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