“That’s bitter” is rarely said as an endorsement of a dish. We think of bitterness as bad, negative, to be avoided, or masked by reaching for something sweet.
Yet many of us enjoy a hoppy beer, dark chocolate and coffee, almost forgetting they’re bitter: what’s going on here? Bitter is a nuanced and intriguing taste, and in my book, Bitter: A Taste of The World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes, I’ve explored why, despite our natural dislike of it, bitter has such a persistent allure.
Our aversion to bitterness is understandable we are hardwired to be sensitive to it. Our taste buds are very adept at detecting even the smallest traces of bitterness and babies and small children react the most strongly.
It’s a natural defense system to protect us from poisons that are often bitter. Today we don’t forage for our food and rarely need this protective mechanism: however that childhood experience leaves a nasty taste in our mouths, so we avoid bitter foods.
We grow into bitterness losing taste buds as we age reducing our reaction to bitter. Experience teaches us that not all bitter foods will kill us. We even learn to like them because they alter our nervous system, the caffeine in coffee stimulates, bitter alcohols relax us, and dark chocolate improves our mood so much that we overlook their bitterness.
Many bitter foods are very good for us. Bitterness signals compounds that boost our immune system, protect us against illness, and positively affect our health, while others act as anti-inflammatories and analgesics. And thanks to bitter receptors located throughout our digestive tract, bitter foods have a dual role as an appetite stimulant and an aid to digestion.
Notwithstanding all benefits of bitter foods, many culinary cultures just enjoy the taste of bitter and have an inherent appreciation for bitter flavors (think of the Italians love of ‘amaro’ herbal liqueurs and bitter greens, or the Asian use of bitter melon).
Little attention has been paid to bitterness in North America, where salty and sweet tastes dominate, but the tide is turning. Bitter greens like arugula, dandelion, radicchio, and frisée are now commonly available and Brussels sprouts, turnips, and white asparagus, all of which have a bitter edge, are on restaurant menus.
The resurgent cocktail culture has embraced bitter, so much so that everyone seems to be making their own bitters and tonic water. Craft beer and single bean high cocoa content chocolate bars are in vogue.
Delicious and beneficial yes, and if we cook with bitter foods we need to consider bitter’s importance in the flavor spectrum.
Cooking is about balancing tastes, and bitter is vital to a dish’s harmony and crucial to the composition of a meal. Consider a salad of bitter greens with a grilled duck breast, bitter and fatty a perfect partnership.
The greens offset the rich duck and the fat tames the leaves bitterness. Bitter can add an element of surprise capturing our attention and making us concentrate on what we are eating.
Even in the background bitter is important. A dark caramel sauce has an element of bitter that reduces its sweetness and intensifies its flavor, making it more complex and satisfying. Adding bitterness doesn’t mean the food has to taste bitter. Eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt or eating without looking, without it our food lacks interest, depth and complexity. We must realize that bitterness is a positive addition to our food.
Yet it is often difficult to agree on just what is bitter. Unlike sweet, salty or sour, thousands of different compounds elicit a “bitter” response.
For me rutabaga (the root vegetable otherwise known as swede) is bitter, but others find it sweet: we all inhabit our own taste world. Bitter is not simply a reaction on our tongue: it encompasses much more and all our senses play a role.
Our brain creates taste and flavor and a whole range of cultural, environmental, and experiential factors govern our perception of bitterness.
You can smell bitter in burnt toast and bitter alcohols, sense bitterness in the pungency of arugula and horseradish, the astringency of celery, or the tannins in tea.
These sensations come not from our taste buds, but via our somatosensory system. We all eat with our eyes and they can trick us into thinking bitter.
When two equally bitter liquids, one clear and the other red are compared, the clear one is usually chosen as more bitter. We associate red with sweetness.
Other surprising external forces also sway how we evaluate bitterness: for example, a Campari and soda drunk listening to a brass band playing low-pitched music will seem more bitter than if there is bright, high-pitched piano music in the background.
Even the shape of our plate has an effect on perception of bitterness: square and rectangular plates make food taste more bitter, while round plates make it taste sweeter.
What we see and taste as ‘bitter’ is complex, elusive, and a product of our anatomy, genetics and culture. When it comes to bitter, our understanding and our experience of it—differs more widely than that of any of the other basic tastes. This is why bitter is the most fascinating and intriguing of all the tastes.
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made Brussels sprouts for dinner.
It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas.
There are two keys to this recipe: cook your own chickpeas—they are superior to the canned ones—and cook the Brussels sprouts in a very hot pan—as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”
Rony’s Brussels sprouts and chickpeas
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup / 6¼ ounces / 180g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup / 60ml extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
3⁄4 cup / 175ml chicken stock, preferably homemade
171⁄2 ounces / 500g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons dry sherry
Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches / 5 cm and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked.
This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes.
When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.
Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft.
Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned.
Add ¼ cup / 60 ml of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.
Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the Brussels sprouts.
Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan.
Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the Brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.
Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Campari and orange juice is an excellent aperitif, and a good introduction to bitter.
The same combination, though in different proportions to the cocktail, can be frozen into a granita.
The advantage of this kind of ice is that you don’t need any fancy machines; you simply need to stir the mixture during the freezing process to break up the ice crystals.
The result is a granular ice. If you prefer more bitterness, try the grapefruit variation below.
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup / 250ml strained freshly squeezed orange juice
1⁄2 cup / 125ml Campari
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Stir the orange juice, Campari, and lemon juice together, then pour into an 8-inch / 20-cm square metal pan.
Place in the freezer. Stir the mixture with a spoon every hour or so, to break it up into large ice crystals.
If you forget to stir the mixture and it freezes solid, don’t panic.
To return the granita it to its granular texture, break it into chunks and pulse briefly in the food processor. To serve, spoon the granita into chilled glasses.
Replace the orange juice with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and add 2 tablespoons / 25g superfine (caster) sugar.
Reprinted with permission from Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photography: Aya Brackett © 2014