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Appreciating bitter (moved from Not About Food).

When I was younger I believed that I detested all things bitter. As I've grown older, howver, I realize that there are a number of my favorite foods/drinks in which bitter is an essential component. Two of these are dark chocolate and good coffee. Also, in recipes calling for eggplant I generally ignore directions to peel the veg because the purported bitterness of eggplant skin has never bothered me. Do any other good bitter flavors come to mind of you Chowhounds?

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  1. Bitter greens is the first thing comes to mind for me. I did have some dandelion greens once that were too much for me, but basically it's a favorite flavor.

    1 Reply
    1. re: cmkdvs

      Yes, a dandelion green salad was a revelation! It started out bitter, and I thought I might not finish it. After a few bites, though, the bitter converted to something wonderful, and by the end of the salad I was wanting more! (it had fresh marinated raw anchovies on top and a lemon/oil dressing.)

    2. Oh, how I have never liked bitter. I grew up with bittermelon as one of our veggie dishes. I could never eat it. I don't mind if there is a tiny, and I mean tiny, bit of bitterness, but otherwise, I just don't have the right taste buds for that flavor. But give me sour anyday!

      1 Reply
      1. re: justagthing

        You, too, huh? I would drink straight vinegar before facing many bitter flavors.

      2. My SO loves the bitterness in Campari and Fernet Branca -- loves to tell me it's an acquired taste, but somehow I just don't get it no matter how many times I try it. Fernet tastes like bitter cough medicine to me.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Kbee

          I love the bitterness of Campari too. I was surprised when out having a drink with an Aunt and I ordered a Campari and Soda. She had a taste and pronounced it sweet. i guess some of us have different perceptions. I love the bitterness of tonic and also bitter lemon.

        2. I really enjoy bitter melon - stuffed with pork and glass noodles in a broth or stir -fried with balck bean sauce. I also try to blanch my cardoons just enough so they are tender but still retain that bitter edge.

          1. Ditto about the greens. Watercress and arugula wouldn't be much without the bitterness. It doesn't mean you'd want to eat a naked giant mouthful of just that, but mixed in with other greens, it gives such a nice depth. To me, it just satisfies something. Other people with other taste buds and other physical makeups (see anything about Oriental diagnosis for medical correspondences to taste preferences) will feel otherwise. I believe that for the general food-oriented person, though, a diet without bitter things is a rainbow missing some colors.

            1 Reply
            1. re: watercress

              I don't find arugula bitter. It may just be me like those of us with an aversion to Cilantro. I find arugula tastes rather like gasoline smells.

            2. Have to lead with the comment that "good" coffee shouldn't be all that bitter. Bitter might be one component of the flavor and depending on the origin, a highlighted flavor, but coffee has more than twice the potential flavor components of wine and "bitter" often happens because of overextraction or brewing water over 205F, not the beans themselves.

              Sorry... being in that business it's one of those things I can't let alone ;-)

              That said, bitter is good. Bitter can be great. In greens, in soft drinks (e.g. San Pell. Aranciata or Chino - one of my fave beverages when in Rome), in herbs and in liqueurs (yes, Fernet does have some Pertussin qualities about it, but Campari is amazingly refreshing).

              I wish there was more "bitter" represented in the typical US grocery store. I for one am tired of sweet all the time (cue the Corn thread).

              All those bitter receptors on your tongue are there for a reason. Why not explore their use?

              1 Reply
              1. re: Panini Guy

                i appreciate bitter flavors quite alot. i really like how it cuts through a creamy rich dish, whether as a component or a side. watercress and arugula to me are mild, but radiccio, endive, trevisano; eggplant; italian digestifs, certain beers, etc.

                it's like acidity -- i think americans don't use enough of either in cooking.

                ok, this and the no cheese with seafood thread have sent me off to the cafe !

              2. The range of craft beer styles include a variety of different bitter elements.

                There are the earthy bitter beers produced in the English tradition (ESBs and English IPAs) and the new world versions of American IPAs and double IPAs, which have a more citrusy/piney bitter character.

                1. I used to abhor bitterness in anything, but at some point I began to like a bit of bitterness and now have some sort of bitter green at nearly every dinner. Also, I live on cranberry juice which my SO can't tolerate bc of the bitterness.

                  1. I've realized over the past few years that I really enjoy a lot of bitter flavors, especially when it comes to bitter greens. I really COULD eat arugula by the mouthful, I love the spicy bitterness of it!

                    1. Love bitter/strong flavors. Some find Sumatran coffee bitter - I find it rich and tasty. I buy frozen broccolli rabe for myself since my family finds it too bitter and fresh bunches are too big only for me. I use parsley as a vegetable - to me it's sweet and fresh. Would you consider horseradish or wasabi bitter, besides hot? Lately I use both a lot.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: amymsmom

                        It could be that people who find it bitter are more sensitive to bitter than you are -- something that the average person finds pleasantly bitter or not at all bitter may be strongly bitter to someone who is bitter sensitive (like me). I dislike most bitter things, although I can appreciate them in some contexts.

                      2. Bitter vs. Sour

                        It seems that some of the items people have been discussing tend to taste more sour to me, such as cranberry juice and some of the other beverages discussed here. I do appreciate some of the greens that have a slight bitter taste, as long as they are balanced. But I never considered argula or watercress bitter greens, I love salads that are primarily made of either of these. Anyone?

                        12 Replies
                        1. re: justagthing

                          Then there is bitter vs sour vs tart. Bitter and tart I like, sour is not pleasant as in sour milk.

                          1. re: Candy

                            ewww, sour milk doesn't taste sour, it just taste spoiled. When I think of sour, I think of hot and sour soup, lemons and limes, etc...which are also items that tend to be tart. I just looked up all of those adjectives and tart and sour were more interchangeable than bitter. Maybe that is another issue, we may have different definitions and ideas about what each of those words mean.

                          2. re: justagthing

                            agreed about the tart vs. bitter question. cranberry juice isn't bitter.

                            however arugula and watercress do fall into the assertive greens family, along with radiccio, trevisano, endive, escarole, chicory, etc. some greens like kale and spinach are higher in tannins, which i find unpleasant, however that should not be confused with bitterness either.

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              Cranberry juice might not be bitter if you're not bitter sensitive, but if you are, it's both tart and slightly bitter (as is grapefruit). I love tart/sour, so it's definitely the bitterness that turns me off both of these (although I've slowly acquired a taste for milder forms of them). It's funny, it wasn't until I realized that I was bitter-sensitive that I understood why I don't like a lot of foods most people love (coffee and beer, for starters).

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Hmmm. I've never liked beer either, but never knew why. Good call. Must be the bitterness. I love coffee, though, so perhaps it's true that good coffee shouldn't be particularly bitter. (Unlike, say, cranberries and --shudder --grapefruit.)

                                1. re: Glencora

                                  Coffee you can doctor-up with cream and/or sugar to mask the bitterness, at least until you get used to it. Beer, unfortunately, you have to drink as-is. I also don't like carbonated things, so beer has another strike against it. I'm always worried that I'm coming across as snobbish when I say I don't drink beer, but it's simply that I really don't like it!

                                  I was at a luncheon with another bitter-sensitive chowhound, and we looked at each other with mutual comprehension/recognition when one of us mentioned that she thought carbonation in and of itself has a bitter quality. The other, more chemistry-savvy chowhound speculated something in the reaction of air/carbon dioxide/water produced a chemical that tastes bitter, but wasn't sure what it would be. At any rate, I don't like carbonation in anything, up to and including champagne.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    I'm not a beer lover either. However, my husband likes to once in awhile drink half a can (he is diabetic so cannot drink much) and that leaves him with half a can to deal with. He has gotten in the habit of pouring tomato juice in it for me. With enough juice, I can get that beer down!

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      The chemical you're probably talking about is carbonic acid, which results when carbon dioxide and water interact. It is a little sourish and a touch bitter....

                                      1. re: Peter G

                                        Thanks. I thought that might be it. I've obviously never tasted pure carbonic acid, but I was under the impression that while acids are sour, alkalais tend to be bitter.

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                          I used to think the same thing.. but chlorogenic and caffeic acids are both bitter and contribute bitterniess to coffee. Quinic acid (better known as quinine) is an alkaLOID, and contributes its extremely bitter taste to tonic water.

                                          1. re: Peter G

                                            Tonic water is, to me, the single most horrible food (okay, liquid) I've ever tasted. Doesn't quinine have something to do with fighting malaria? I seem to remember something about that in Victorian novels about "the Empire."

                                            1. re: Glencora

                                              Yup. I think tonic water was invented by British colonialists to drink in the tropics. I've been known to drink vodka tonic (I used to drink gin and tonic, but it turns out my allergy to juniper pollen also applies to whatever elements of juniper go into gin), but that's one of those cases where I enjoy the ... bracing ... nature of the bitterness.

                            2. About 25% of the population are what they call "super tasters" and they taste bitterness more profoundly. I must be one of those, because while my friends extol the virtues of brussel sprouts and rutabagas, I find them very bitter and just can't eat them.

                              On the other hand, I love bitter greens, especially with a dash of vinegar. I was eating with a friend who said she disliked arugala. I told her to dip it into some vinaigrette, and she was amazed at how the flavors tempered each other.

                              1. Orangina soda tastes bitter as well as sour to me. I'm surprised my picky son likes it.

                                1. This topic made me pour a Campari and Soda while i was picking lobster for lobster rolls tonight, somethign I have not done in a long time. It was definitely bitter and refreshing but not sour, and not something I would put in the tart category like lime juice.

                                  1. Do those of you who appreciate bitter foods find depth in the bitterness? Bitterness usually tastes to me like a dead end, if that makes sense -- a flavor that begins as unpleasant and doesn't develop into anything else. Do you have any suggestions for cultivating a taste for bitterness?

                                    Like two of the previous posters, I grew up with bitter-melon dishes and was averse. Later on, I did come to appreciate it for its refreshing effect. However, I still have a hard time with other bitter greens -- even, say, broccoli rabe, which I've really, really tried to acquire a taste for, making all sorts of ostensibly delicious pastas that I could barely chew without grimacing. Help!

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: sequins

                                      Regarding "depth in the bitterness" I would say that there is a taste sensation that comes after chewing something bitter say like broccoli rabe, where there is a sweetness that is sensed as an after taste. Could be that saliva plays a role here. Same thing with dandelion greens which I have been eating since I was very young. Especially raw, in a salad.
                                      My very favorite aperitif is Pun e Mes, which is an Italian liquor made from artichokes. with the merest lemon zest and a few cubes of ice.

                                      1. re: Gio

                                        As far as trying to better appreciate bitterness, all I can suggest is my own experience, which I suppose you could practice on anything. I "cup" production roast coffees fairly regularly so I tend to look for flavors and sensations in most things I consume so I can translate that back to descriptors for the coffees. When I was starting to develop a more practiced palate (and it's still nowhere compared to top people in coffee) I was encouraged to simply eat slower while concentrating on smelling and tasting everything, ideally with closed eyes, to better see what I could sense out of whatever it was I was ingesting. So I can taste an orange juice and generally tell you two or three other significant flavors that I'm sensing. You might have totally different opinions, but if you work at it, you'll think of things beyond simply the bitterness. I dunno... worked for me, but I was sort of partial to bitter anyway.

                                        1. re: Panini Guy

                                          Coffee and chocolate are the two bitter-ish foods I love, and which I absolutely would agree have wonderful depth and nuance of flavor. The artichoke apertif sounds amazing, too. I just have a way harder time with bitter greens. But practicing with an open mind and open nostrils is good advice, and I'd like to keep trying.

                                    2. It makes loads of sense that you didn't like it when you were younger and are ok with it now. As kids our mouths are packed with taste buds and most kids are drawn to sweet thing - carbs to make them grow! Notice how kids hate veggies (and many veggies have some bitter edge to them) - this is why.

                                      As we age, our taste buds die so we find things appealing we may not have liked before (why it's a good idea to try things you haven't tried in a couple of years).

                                      Then you have to factor in (as I link arms with Ruth) whether you are a super, average, or under taster. For me, no amount of milk, or sugar can mask the bitterness of coffee and i find it painful to drink - very unpleasant (I can't do mocha or even coffee ice cream - no matter how many times people tell me that they'll find a way for me to like it). Broccoli is impossible for me, as are many vegetables (I am a big fan of all variations of green beans and have been since I was a child). I hate all beer and most alcohol (only the expensive icewines can i do)

                                      I can do some bitter (dark chocolate) but it's completely different in my mouth and the mouthfeel of chocolate (fat and sugar) seems to win out any bitter unpleasantness for me.

                                      I run upon a people that feel badly that I can't experience the pleasure they derive from bitternness....but trust me - the orgasmic sensation I experience from bursts of flavors, or the subtleness I get that many can't taste is worth it to me.

                                      1. I am working on a blog post about Shaker Lemon pie, where you include the entire peel of the lemon and its bitterness is an essential component. Teas can be bitter - where I live in China some bitter varieties such as Mao Feng are very popular. Cinnamon is extremely bitter by itself, which is why it goes so fantastically in sweet things. I agree that a tangy element can pull the bitterness into focus.

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: pepper_mil

                                          Hmmm... I never thought of cinnamon as being bitter. Saffron, however, it quite bitter -- if there's more than a little saffron in something it really ruins the dish for me.

                                          I don't think of lemon peel as being particularly bitter, either. At least, not like grapefruit. You're right that a lot of teas are bitter. I've never really warmed to green teas, and I prefer to drink my black teas with milk (preferrably cream), which mutes the bitterness. Melanie Wong has tried to teach me that salt will counteract bitterness in savory foods, but I always forget to try it.

                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                            The rind is not the bitter part, but the pith is what tends to be bitter. It's funny, or odd, but I also have never thought of cinnamon as bitter either. But then again, I love saffron in rice and I don't think it is bitter. I know that it has been discussed about the variations in tasting in people, super tasters and all. So if you taste bitter in items that many don't does that make you a super taster. And if you do not like that flavor, bitter taste, does that mean you aren't? So, if you are a supertaster, are you suppose to like/love the taste of bitter? It is a little bit confusing.

                                            1. re: justagthing

                                              Actually I find cinnamon, on its own, has a sweet edge to it. And yes, the rind (zest) and pith of citrus are quite separate flavors.

                                              I'm not a supertaster but as I understand the discussion, people who are, are the ones who don't warm to the bitters.

                                              1. re: cmkdvs

                                                I don't find cinnamon bitter at all - extremely strong and 'burny' if you've ever bitten into a whole cinnamon stick, but not bitter. I adore cinnamon, and I detest any hint of bitterness in my food. To me 'bitter' says 'spit it out right now before it poisons you!'

                                        2. Jackp and I were just discussing bitter flavors on the way home because he was finishing a glass of beer as we left a party. To him the beer was mildly bitter but to me, all hopp-y beers are very bitter. I don't enjoy beer, but I do enjoy a bit of bitter flavor to counteract other flavors or even other textures. If a food has only one note it just isn't very interesting to me.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: jillp

                                            Interesting comment about "one note." I guess that is what I find interesting about craft beer. In the more interesting beers, the flavor profile can change in your mouth from first taste, through the swallow and then the aftertaste. It can go from sweet to bitter and then a blend of the two or vice versa, depending upon the style. Some styles are all about sweetness and have a variety of fruit-oriented flavors. Some are all about bitterness. Others are roasty, with chocolate and coffee elements. The list can go on and on. If your only experience with beer is with products made by the big American or European breweries, you are missing a world of different flavor profiles.

                                          2. One topic that I don't think has been covered in this thread is bitter soda.

                                            I really enjoy Chinotto, which has a unique herbal bitterness that I don't find in any domestic sodas that I have tasted; although I would add that I don't often drink sodas because they are way too sweet for me.

                                            Some ginger ales have a nice bitter, ginger character. Blenheim ginger ale is a good example, although I find the residual sweetness a bit cloying.

                                            1. I love what are classically considered 'bitter' things like: raddichio, Campari, arugula, bitter melon, brocoli rabe, celery etc. But to me, for some reason they also have a peppery, slightly sweet taste too, so not one-dimensional and not even really 'bitter'.

                                              Bitter Lemon soda or other 'bitter' sodas just taste a little more 'bitey' to me.

                                              The only thing that is repugnantly bitter that I can think of would be chomping on a bunch of citris pith.