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Jul 31, 2009 02:45 PM

Mark Bittman: Expert in Residence!

Mark Bittman will be in residence on Chowhound for the week starting Monday, August 3, responding to questions about cooking and his new book, "Kitchen Express," which focuses on quick, easy, flexible recipes.

One of the country's best-known food personalities, Mark is hailed for his candor, his no-nonsense style, and his simple, approachable recipes. In addition to his award-winning cookbooks "How to Cook Everything" and "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," Mark also writes The Minimalist column (now in its 12th year), with accompanying web videos, and the blog Bitten for the "New York Times," and he hosts public television series like "Bittman Takes on America's Chefs" and "The Best Recipes in the World."

You can check out Mark's work here:
Mark's Website:
"Kitchen Express":
The Minimalist:

Mark will be checking in at least once a day from August 3 through August 7 to respond. He's an incredible resource for everything and anything cooking-related. Some ideas for what he might discuss are:

-Ways to use seasonal produce--e.g., what should I do with all this zucchini?!
-Tips for improvising in the kitchen for fast weeknight meals
-How to cook on a budget
-Kitchen and pantry essentials
-Suggestions for getting out of a rut and adding new flavors to your cooking

Keep Mark busy -- start asking questions!

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  1. Okay, I'll bite. I bought a $40 bottle of Olive Oil that was recommended, without reading the fine print on the back of the bottle. I used it in a salad dressing. I was seasoning and tasting, and everything was very bitter...I thought maybe it needed more olive oil to cut the bitterness, so I added more. The olive oil was the bitter ingredient.
    I read the back of the bottle, which I clearly should have done before plunking down my $40. Turns out it has a bitter aftertaste because they use tree olives that are not "excessively mature". So my question is, what do I do with my bitter olive oil? If I heat it will the bitterness lessen? Thanks!

    20 Replies
    1. re: sibeats

      Enjoy it - it's a characteristic that some people treasure. Try just dipping raw vegetables in it. Or - if you give up - yes, if you cook with it, the bitterness will go away. (But that's kind of a waste.)

      1. re: Mark Bittman

        Or what about adding salt when you use it for anything other than sauteing? Salt attenuates the brains perception of bitterness. So, adding a pinch of salt to the oil or the food you will oil, will make it taste less bitter. I should add that there appears to be no chemical reaction between the salt and the bitter chemicals in the oil, but something that happens in the nervous system when it is infiltrated by sodium and chlorine ions.

        The reason you don't want to salt the oil and heat it for sauteing is that the salt lowers the smoke point of the oil so that it burns up, tastes worse, and probably becomes carcinogenic.

        1. re: bob delGrosso

          You'd have to document that for me to believe it.

          1. re: Mark Bittman

            The salt/bitter thing is true. Get some bitter tahini (most of the stuff available in the States qualifies). Keep adding salt and tasting. You will reach a point when the tahini doesn't taste at all bitter. This is why it's necessary to add quite a bit of salt to hummous. (I learned this from a Lebanese friend when I was living in the Middle East years ago. Most Lebanese tahini is very bitter, so they add lots of salt.)

            1. re: pikawicca

              Salt mitigates acid, not sure about bitterness.

              Any food science on salt diminishing bitterness? McGee, etc.?

              Hummus needs salt because chickpeas and tahini need lots of salt, not because of any bitterness in the tahini. And my brand of tahini is not bitter -- just nutty, oily and bland.

              1. re: maria lorraine

                Find some bitter hummous and give it a try. Don't know why you need "food science" when you can do your own experiment.

                1. re: pikawicca

                  I've never encountered bitter hummus or bitter tahini.

                  And of course we need food science to corroborate or disprove anecdotal claims.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    Maria - tahini quality in different brands varies quite a bit, and bitterness levels also change with hulled vs. unhulled sesame seeds, roasted vs. raw. My current brand Al Wadi certainly has perceptible bitterness.

                    Anecdotally, salt is used to dispel bitterness in other instances as well, such as coffee.

                    1. re: Chester Eleganté

                      Yes, aware of that, and almost used that every example myself.

                      But sugar in espresso also mollifies bitterness.

                      More below, in response to Jcap...

                2. re: maria lorraine

                  Let me check on this. Salt changes the ionic strength. This can have many dramatic effects. For example it is added to vinegar to clean copper. It does not take part in the reaction but assists it. It seems perfectly possible that the mouth's chemical receptors would be influenced by the ionic level. I'm not saying it's true, but if is definitely plausible.

                  1. re: Paulustrious

                    Heston Blumenthal believes that adding salt does in fact reduce bitterness, and we all know how he loves the scientific method!
                    From the article:
                    HESTON RULES: 10 WAYS TO BE A BETTER COOK

                    - What seems obvious isn’t always right. “If you want to reduce bitterness (in a stock, say), you add salt, not sugar.”

                    1. re: JCap

                      OK, but HOW does that work?

                      Does that salt actually REDUCE bitterness?

                      Or, does it merely provide another taste sensation to COMPETE with bitterness so its perception isn't foremost?

                      Still need the science.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        I would guess, as your answer kind of suggests, that either the salt molecules are reacting with compounds that cause bitterness (and salt is pretty "reactive") or else it is somehow affecting how our taste buds perceive the taste of bitterness. Getting any closer?

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          I don't know. I used all my google powers to find a scientific answer, but couldn't find anything. Maybe we could find it in the Fat Duck cookbook for $400 or whatever it costs?!
                          But one article I saw (from someone other than Blumenthal) talks about adding a pinch of salt to coffe grounds prior to brewing to smooth out bitter coffee. May be a worthy experiment...

                          1. re: JCap

                            Thanks, JCap, for your efforts.

                            In the case of coffee and salt, is the salt reducing bitterness or acidity?

                            Certainly, salt does mitigate acid -- the reason an overly vinegar-y vinaigrette becomes less "tart" in taste after salt is added.

                            But, again, is this a chemical reaction that reduces acidity?

                            Or is merely another taste that competes for recognition in our sensory perception?

                            We have separate taste relays for salt, bitter, and sour (acidic) in each of our taste buds. (Also separate relays for sweet and umami.)

                            We can liken a single taste (bitterness) or several tastes occurring in synchrony to music -- one note vs. a chord.

                            A single note stands out, just like bitterness alone. But a chord is a unified sound, and no single note stands out, just like several tastes experienced simultaneously.

                            At least, that's my guess if a chemical reaction is not occurring.

                            Would love to know the science. Wish I had time to chase it down.

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              All you need is access to academic journals!

                              "We conclude that sodium was the most successful cation and glutamate and AMP were the most successful anions at inhibiting bitterness. Structure forming and breaking properties of ions, as predicted by the Hofmeister series, and other physical-chemical ion properties failed to significantly predict bitterness inhibition." (Keast and Breslin, Modifying the Bitterness of Selected Oral Pharmaceuticals with Cation and Anion Series of Salts. Pharmaceutical Reseach, 2002).

                              In other words -- we don't know why it works.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  Once more!
                                  "Bitter compounds consisting of a hydrophobic residue attached to glucose by a -glycosidic bond activate TAS2R16. Thus, TAS2R16 links the recognition of a specific chemical structure to the perception of bitter taste."
                                  In other words:
                                  Uncharged molecules attached to sugar molecules taste bitter. Salt is charged, so maybe it reacts with the uncharged molecule to create a charge? Chlorine can do some displacement/substitution reactions that could conceivably change the hydrophilicity (charge state) of a molecule.... But I don't know. The first paper couldn't find predictive properties for their ions, and sodium doesn't bind quinine, but does suppress its bitterness.
                                  However, "Although the reasons why zinc ions inhibit sweetness and bitterness are not known, zinc ions allosterically modify other transmembrane receptors, especially at histidine and cysteine residues, and may also alter taste receptor conformations rendering them unavailable for normal function" -- so it may be that salt isn't altering the compound, but it is making it temporarily impossible for you to taste bitterness.
                                  We have lots of different bitterness receptors that are activated by different compounds, though -- so only some would be inhibited, if this is the case, anyway.

                3. re: Mark Bittman

                  I'm no biochemist, but I tested this yesterday by adding salt to spinach puree that I thought was somewhat bitter, and it worked perfectly.

                  I generally tend to go light on salt, because it can dominate other desirable flavors and I don't want too much sodium, but I think I'll be tasting things differently after this.

            2. re: sibeats

              Make ice cream. Bittersweet is a flavor that is wonderful when cold. Also, if you spent that much, it was most likely extra-virgin. Never heat that stuff, you might as well buy 100 dollar wine for cooking and I don't mean drinking in front of the stove.

            3. I've got 2 questions for Mr. Bittman:
              1. A while back, I heard an interview with you on NPR in which you explained ways to spice up oatmeal. Right now, my favorite concoctions are all sweet (peanut butter and banana; dried fruits; etc.). What are some great savory oatmeal flavors you like?
              2. What are some of your favorite ways to do up the can-be bland chicken breast? I've done many herb marinades (this time of year they grow like crazy in my backyard), but am looking to branch out.
              By the way, just finished the On The Road Again... series. I loved it and was incessantly jealous!

              1 Reply
              1. re: pastry634

                1. Soy sauce.
                2. Anything with tomatoes. See How to Cook Everything.

              2. I'll bite. Will he admit that 3 days in Mexico City was insufficient to taste it and trash it?
                Excepting that event, I'm tempted to like the guy. But we're not past him, in Mexico.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Veggo

                  "He" will report that he's been in Mexico City five times and never trashed it.

                2. About budget kitchen essentials: is there such a thing as a cheap mandoline that works OK? Also: vanilla extract is so expensive. Is imitation too awful to use, ever? Is saffron really worth the expenditure? I love your tortilitta recipe, make it a lot, often wonder if I'm making it too thick. Is it supposed to be really crispy? Also wonder why it's half garbanzo bean flour, I don't taste any different flavor. thanks!

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: knitterbetty

                    I'm no Bittman, but I can still answer most of those questions.

                    First, get the oxo v-slicer. For 30 bucks you get something that is still rated as one of the best ones on the market and its way cheaper and easier to store than any of the expensive french ones.

                    Second, vanilla extract is way cheaper if you make your own using extract grade beans (grade B). I buy these on ebay from vanilla products usa. I once got two different types of grade B and one type of grade A for about 13 dollars (30 beans total). Plus i also received an additional 10 beans for my order size of over ten dollars or something like that. Then, using vodka or something else that is clean tasting and 80 proof, I made extract. that's about a cup of booze per 2 beans. The supplier in question accidentally threw in one or two bad smelling beans but its better than 2 beans for 10 dollars at the grocery store.

                    Thirdly, Saffron is worth the price, but you can get away with paying a lot less. The main exporter of Saffron is Spain but they are not the largest producer. Iran is, but they don't export a whole lot. Spanish Saffron often goes through many middle men before they get to your local super market so if you want to save money you might want to find an online supplier that is also the producer. Cut all those retail fees. Or if you have friends or family that are visiting Iran, ask them to smuggle some for you.

                    The other questions I can not answer since I have no idea what recipe you are talking about nor do I follow recipes when I can help it.

                    Hope that helps a little.

                    1. re: spotprawn

                      Thanks~ I'm headed for that website. The tortillita is a great quick pancake, no eggs, half chickpea flour/half AP, shrimp or other addition, herbs, liquid. Three minutes each side, comes out crispy. MB had a column on it, and a great video as well.

                      1. re: spotprawn

                        You might want to seek out Middle Eastern grocery stores. I have several near me (Suffolk County, Long Island), and they sell saffron in rather large containers covered in Arabic writing, which I'll presume would indicate they aren't from Spain. Also a great place for cardamon, cumin, etc.

                      2. re: knitterbetty

                        1. Yes. It's plastic and it works great. Go to any kitchen supply or Asian store and ask for a Benriner.
                        2. Yes, imitation is useless.
                        3. Yes, saffron is worth it. An ounce will last you three years even if you use it a lot.
                        4. Yes, crispy. If you don't think it's worth using chickpea flour here, then don't - that's fine.

                        1. re: Mark Bittman

                          Hey, thanks! I LOVE your tortillitas, was just curious about why chickpea flour. Gonna make vanilla extract. Figure if I can make limencello, I can make extract. Your columns make my day!

                          1. re: Mark Bittman

                            "Yes, saffron is worth it. An ounce will last you three years even if you use it a lot."

                            I sincerely hope it's ok if I expand on that just a bit. Many places carry Saffron in 1 gram packages for roughly ten bucks. These are perfect for the home cook wanting to utilize Saffron with a minimal investment.
                            FWIW Costco carries a 5 gram bottle of Spanish Saffron for roughly $25-30 and the quality is excellent. I make a lot of Paella and Saffron rice and this size lasts me close to a year.
                            I can not imagine my pantry being complete with out it.
                            I'm not promoting Iran but if that's what one is inclined to buy Costco offers that on line as well.


                            1. re: Fritter

                              Years ago I worked in a gourmet foods shop where we sold bulk spices. It was possible buy a 1/3 tsp of whatever spice or 1/4 of an ounce or whatever other small quantity you want. The per pound price was significantly less than that sold at a commercial supermarket.

                              My recommendation is to seek out smaller food shops or coops where you can purchases spices in smaller quantities. I save so much money buying my spices this way rather than at the grocery store.

                            2. re: Mark Bittman

                              How long will a sealed packet (1/220 oz.) of saffron stay viable unopened? Once opened, how do you store it (vacuum seal?) and a time limit once opened and resealed? Thanks, VWR

                          2. Gazpacho-how long to chill and why can you chill gazpacho, but not tomatoes?