Welcome to the last installment in our Taste Sense Series! This week we’re discussing bitterness. Now, we know the word doesn’t exactly bring to mind the most comforting or inviting of emotions (for example, bitter weather or bitter people are typically no fun to be around…) But we’ll learn that the taste of bitterness actually has some surprising benefits (and may just include some of your favorite foods)!
In case you missed our previous “episodes” in this taste saga, we suggest you check them out!
- Sense Series: Sweetness
- Sense Series: Spicy
- Sense Series: Sour
- Sense Series: Salty
- Sense Series: Umami
All About Bitterness
The science behind the way we taste bitter substances is still a bit of a mystery; it is not as clear-cut (or as popular) as some of the other tastes such as sweet or salty. However bitter foods still accomplish a number of different purposes, both practical and culinary.
Safe to Eat?
In nature, a bitter taste often indicates a toxic or poisonous substance, serving as a warning not to consume something. This would have been a useful tool to our ancestors, foraging for foods and exploring new species of plants. While this isn’t much of a concern in today’s society with modern-day grocery stores and farmers markets, it still serves as an interesting side note. (And it’s still relevant to other members of the animal kingdom, most notably herbivores.)
Obviously not every bitter substance is dangerous or toxic. There are many bitter-tasting plants, vegetables, fruit, and other foods that are perfectly safe to eat—and even delicious! In many of these cases, the bitter taste serves other beneficial purposes…
Rich in Nutrients
Many bitter foods contain beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in the form of polyphenols and flavonoids. Antioxidants may reduce inflammation and help our bodies fight against certain diseases. A few significant sources of antioxidants among bitter foods are cranberries, cocoa and dark chocolate, coffee, and green tea.
Another primary function of bitter foods is their ability to aid in digestion. They accomplish this by stimulating the liver and digestive system and increasing the production of digestive enzymes, which aids in food absorption. Some good sources of digestion-friendly bitters are apple cider vinegar, ginger and leafy greens.
There is some indication that bitters can also assist with appetite regulation and insulin sensitivity, regulation of blood flow, and many other health benefits.(1)
Read more about digestive health at: https://potatorolls.com/blog/recipes-for-digestive-health.
As with the rest of the “taste senses,” bitter is better when combined with other tastes. One obvious reason is that it is usually an acquired taste; not many people crave extremely bitter foods immediately from birth. Bitter foods are often described as sharp or pungent but can work alongside other tastes to create an intriguing, well-rounded flavor palate.
Consider black coffee, for instance—some people enjoy the bitter taste of black coffee, but many prefer to add cream and/or sugar to help balance out the bitterness. The same is true of raw cocoa or dark chocolate.
In the above example, you can see how cream (fat) and sugar both help to balance out bitterness. The same is true of salt. Some people swear that adding a pinch of salt to their coffee grounds can help cut the bitterness of the brew. This is certainly the case with other foods as well. It is common practice in the culinary world to salt vegetables, such as broccoli or eggplant, prior to cooking them to help reduce the bitterness and enhance the other flavors.
Bitter foods are all around you—and they may not be ones you expect.
- Cruciferous Vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cabbage
- Dark Leafy Greens like kale, collard greens, arugula, dandelion greens, radicchio, chicory, and endive
- Mustard and mustard greens
- Radish, Horseradish, and Wasabi
- Citrus (particularly the peel and white pith), especially grapefruit
- Raw Cocoa and Dark Chocolate
- Green Tea
- Red Wine and Beer
- Tonic Water (from quinine)
Are any of your favorites on this list? Take a look at a few of them in action with the below recipes!
Brussels Sprouts Casserole
Brussels sprouts aren’t always everyone’s “cup of tea,” but when combined with crispy bacon, heavy cream, sharp white cheddar cheese, and toasty bread crumbles, this mildly-bitter veggie is transformed into a deliciously savory and comforting dish.
Cappuccino French Toast Sticks
No matter how you take your coffee, I think we can all agree that these decadent French toast sticks, which incorporate (naturally bitter) espresso powder into the traditional custard base, are the perfect brunch bite. Go ahead and give it a mocha finish with some frothy coffee cream and dusting of cocoa powder.
Beef Teriyaki Crostini with Wasabi Mayo
Wasabi, like horseradish, can have an alarmingly pungent quality when tasted alone. But when blended into a creamy mayo-based spread, it becomes the perfect flavor accent for teriyaki-marinated flank steak atop Martin’s bread crostini.
More Bitter-Inspired Recipes
See if you can identify the “bitter” ingredient in these recipes:
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