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The Bitter Truth

Greens with a touch of bitterness add a healthy and piquant accent that sets off other ingredients, as with this asparagus and fava bean salad at Philippe in Houston. Photo courtesy of KIM garver. Optimizing the flavor potential of bitter profiles

By Priscilla Martel

Bitter conjures up disappointment or treacley Mary Poppins with her spoonful of sugar. Bitterness as a taste often alienates, but it is an essential flavoring component that adds balance and sophistication to contemporary dishes and spirits. For the mixologist, beverage bitters are the seasoning that makes satisfying cocktails. For the chef, bitter tastes punctuate a dish.

Take the Pan-Roasted Cod, Mashed Herbs and Lime Compote on the spring menu at Nougatine in Manhattan. The lightly salted fresh cod sits atop a bright green purée of oil-poached fennel, parsley, mint and Serrano chile. A topping of lightly bitter and acidic lime relish garnishes the delicately crunchy fish. Bitter notes from the herbs in the sauce and the lime make the palate receptive to contrasting flavors in the moist yet crisp fish. Without those piquant elements, the dish would be incomplete, lacking the complexity that makes one want that third and fourth bite.

“Phenols, flavonoids, terpines — so many types of flavor chemicals produce bitterness,” says Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development at Wixon Seasonings. “Bitterness is Mother Nature’s protection,” he says of the human reaction to spit out bitter-tasting foods. For plants, this mechanism is like a “natural pesticide,” says Gascon, preventing them from being eaten by pests. We now know that foods rich in these compounds — phenol-rich berries, tea and chocolate, or those full of flavonoids, like citrus, tea and wine — are often the most health-sustaining.

As diners seek delicious nutrition, chefs and menu developers are turning to colorful fresh fruits, vegetables and bitter greens. On the recently rolled-out SkinnyLicious menu at The Cheesecake Factory, for example, more than half of the salad recipes include some type of a bitter ingredient and would be “incomplete without them,” says Bob Okura, the company’s vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef. (Entrées on this menu have less than 595 calories and appetizers less than 490 calories.) “Bitter is a good player,” says Okura of ingredients like radicchio, frisée and red cabbage. These ingredients deliver contrasting color, texture and flavor, and they keep diners “interested in a dish,” he adds. In a salad with bitter elements, Okura balances flavors by adding sweet and salty components such as candied pecans and blue cheese.

“Americans do not seek out bitter,” says Rich Collins, president of California Vegetable Specialties, the only Belgian-style endive producer in the United States. However, when paired with the right ingredients or cooking technique, the bitterness is appreciated, he says. In the classic French winter salad — a combination of Belgian endive, pears and blue cheese — bitterness is offset by the sourness in a light vinaigrette, the sweetness of a ripe pear and the umami from blue cheese. The salt and umami make for “a glorious combination,” says Collins, and a good example of how a bitter ingredient can be made palatable and even delicious by the company it keeps.

Technique is another factor in lessening the bitterness in ingredients like endive. “When grilling endive, some of the more complex sugars break down and that bitterness tends to get more muted,” Collins notes. Braising also helps to tame the bitter notes.

As evidence of the growth in bitter beverages, sales of Campari — the base for the signature Negroni — were up 16 percent last year after being flat since the 1970s. Photo courtesy of campari. BITTERNESS IN THE WILD
The sustainable food movement has independent chefs foraging for everything from ramps to stinging nettles. Natural bitterness occurs in many undomesticated plant species, none more so than in the foraged greens that Tama Matsuoka Wong gathers. Inspired by the sensory experience of wandering in the woods near her home, Wong taught herself to identify edible species, turning her hobby into a business, book and conservation movement. Of wild plants, she says, not all are bitter. But some, like those in the mustard family, are distinctly so. She recommends pairing them with “soft and plain” foods such as potatoes or eggs, or with a fatty meat in order to balance bitter and bland.

“Having something with vinegar will cut the bite,” she says, recommending pairing wild greens with a dumpling and some vinegar to “round out” the bite. Balance is key to her approach, something explored in Foraged Flavor (2012, Clarkson Potter) the book she wrote with Eddy Leroux, chef de cuisine at Daniel in New York City. She praises the taste of uncultivated plants because it is not “generic,” making them exciting to work with. “Really great ingredients do not have to be those that are rare and expensive,” she says of weeds and found foods, as well as humble plants like parsnips.

Wong notes that many wild plants in the United States are culinary plants that migrated here from other countries, particularly Asia, where bitter tastes are appreciated.

“Where others try to control bitterness, we [Asians] accept and come to expect it,” says chef Jet Tila, owner of The Charleston in Santa Monica, Calif. “I can’t think of any other cuisine that understands that bitter is part of a balance of flavors.” With his understanding of Thai and Asian cuisines, Tila has adapted some Eastern techniques for working with bitter tastes into cooking geared to a Western palate. On his menu is a spin on Asian braised pork belly bao (bun). He deep-fries the bun “like a doughnut,” then uses a strong and acerbic green-onion garnish to counteract oiliness and the fatty umami of the pork.

Tila notes that bitter tastes balance sweet and fatty flavors, appealing to those with a “more evolved palate.” Those of European descent aren’t used to the bitterness, he says, noting the fine line between “acceptably bitter” or a culinary mishap such as overcharring or over caramelization.

Dishes such as those with excessive quantities of fresh ginger or ginseng are “medicinal foods” in Chinese culture. And, despite their bitterness, these dishes are perceived to be “good for you,” says Tila. (Likewise, in Ayurvedic cooking, the traditional Hindu medicine, bitter tastes are believed to clean and detoxify human systems.)

“It seems, especially when I am feeling a bit sick, a bitter melon-spiked soup feels like a tonic to cure my body,” says chef Robert Danhi, author and culinarian specializing in Southeast Asian cuisine. Among the traditional ingredients he cites for their sharp and medicinal properties are pepper leaves (Piper sarmentosum), the leaves from the Balinese long pepper plant. These “possess a lovely astringency with a bitter bite that can make that perfect balance — such as with Miang Kum, where a sweet and savory tamarind caramel is filled with tidbits of lime, dried shrimp, ginger, shallots and toasted coconut,” Danhi says.

There are culinary lessons to be learned from how Asians prepare bitter melon, the fruit of a subtropical vine, known to be an acquired taste even among Asians. Danhi observes that Thai cooks may simmer bitter melon with pork ribs into a clear soup, while the Chinese may pair it with pickled mustard greens.

Nowhere has an interest in bitterness been more pronounced than at the bar, where mixologists are rediscovering lost recipes in which craft bitters play a starring role. Known as aromatic bitters, these blends began as remedies; the origin story of Angostura ties the brew to a stomach remedy for malaria-suffering sailors. To make bitters, such puckery herbs as gentian, quinine, cassia and other botanicals were brewed with alcohol then diluted with water or soda.

“Bitters are an essential ingredient in classic cocktails like Old Fashioneds,” says mixologist Dan Greenbaum of The Beagle in Manhattan. And according to cocktail historians, bitters is what distinguishes a cocktail from a sour, sling or other mixed drink.

Vanessa Treviño Boyd, beverage director at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge in Houston, says the bitters trend started about five years ago, growing into an interest in savory cocktails. “Bitters really help stimulate the digestive system, and as an aperitif, they stimulate the appetite,” she says. Boyd serves a drink called The Bitter Pill, a blend of red grapefruit, basil gin, blonde Lillet and Campari. She feels such drinks are successful because they introduce bitter tastes in a balanced and approachable way.

“Think of bitters as your spice,” says Joe Fee, fourth-generation family member to run Fee Brothers, a manufacturer of bitters and drink mixers. “Bitters add a depth of subtle flavors” he says. Although Fee feels that aromatic bitters are on trend, “bitter, in and of itself, is not the goal” he says. “Sour, salty, sweet — you want balance so that all your taste receptors are engaged.”

The Beagle’s Greenbaum likes the analogy of bitters as a “concentrated seasoning,” saying it transforms whiskey and sweet vermouth “into a new flavor, rather than the sum of its parts.” Some specific products work better in different applications, he notes. Darker Angostura bitters plays off the spice in oak-aged spirits, while orange bitters “elevates” the cardamom and other spices in gin.

The Beagle is among restaurants pushing the frontier between cocktails and dinner service. On its Pairing Boards menu, chef and mixologist partner savory tidbits with a cocktail or aperitif. A recent example is Seared Foie Gras, Cheddar Pancake and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar with Taste of Amaro CioCiaro. “We’ve never paired amaro with food before,” says Greenbaum of the bittersweet Italian liqueur. In this pairing, he sees the bitters as a flavor enhancer —something that helps integrate the flavors in the pairing. “Bitter, in moderation, can definitely be one of the most important things in a cocktail and also with food pairings.”

Aperitifs such as Aperol, Campari, Cynar and Fernet Branca are part of a broad bitter beverage trend. Sales of Campari were up 16 percent last year after being flat since the 1970s, says Dave Karraker, U.S. Campari brand manager. The drink, “often associated with someone’s grandmother,” has morphed into the perfect accompaniment to housemade salumi and cheese, he notes. “Consumers are looking for new experiences and open to new flavors in a way that was inconceivable 10 years ago,” adds Karraker, who feels we’re evolving from “flavor settlers” to “flavor nomads.” Recently, Campari has been promoting its signature Negroni, equal parts Campari, gin and red vermouth. Its efforts have spawned dozens of variations, from the Negronski made with vodka, the Sbagliato blended with Prosecco and the carbonated Negroni, a hit at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in April.

Asians embrace the biting flavor of bitter melon, serving it in a healing soup or using it to balance fatty ingredients, as in this traditional Japanese champuru, with goya (bitter melon), pork, eggs and seasonings, tossed with rice noodles. SCIENCE OF BITTER
Food scientists have discovered that salt suppresses bitter tastes. This is why we shake salt on grapefruit,  sprinkle it on sliced eggplant or sometimes add a pinch of salt to coffee grounds before brewing. Increasingly, sensory scientists, oenologists and flavor chemists are digging deeper, studying how specific chemical compounds in food interact with human taste receptors.

One such researcher is Dr. Virginia Utermohlen in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. “We have upwards of 50 bitter taste receptors, which bind to different compounds in food,” she says. “We qualify and classify them all as bitter, but they’re not necessarily all the same compound.” She gives the example of pairing black tea with a Linzer cookie. Tea, which is both bitter and astringent, mellows when consumed with the buttery cookie. The ketones in the raspberry filling bind with the tea to certain taste receptors, she explains. The butter and the hazelnuts in the cookie interact on primary and secondary taste receptors to dull or block the bitter tastes in the tea.

When bitterness can’t be balanced, product developers may turn to “taste modifiers,” which trick the palate to make bitterness undetectable, explains Wixon’s Gascon. Such high-intensity sweeteners as stevia, as well as superfoods like ginkgo biloba, goji berries and acai, taste intensely bitter to many people. Flavor modifiers like Wixon’s Mag-nifique reduce the perception of bitterness without added taste. Gascon says such modifiers can be useful in culinary applications ranging from concealing vegetables in a product geared for children or working with whole grains, which can produce astringency.

“For some people, bitter is not necessarily understood. It is just perceived as something bad on the tongue,” says Rachel Tracy, managing director of Chicago-based Olson Communications. The company recently conducted a study on bitter taste preferences through its Culinary Visions Panel. However, Tracy points out that “bitter is the preferred taste for foodies,” and suggests that chefs and operators with a more culinary-minded clientele may be more experimental when it comes to bitter flavors. She recommends using bitter undertones “to give flavor balance between sweet and salty.”

Chef Bob Okura feels that the awareness and growing acceptance of bitter profiles points to an evolving American palate. He cites the popularity of dark chocolate and coffee as evidence of such maturing tastes. “It is really a matter of exposure and education,” he says, that will bring “underutilized flavors” into the mainstream. As chefs and mixologists continue to embrace and finesse bitter ingredients and profiles, taste-trekking consumers will follow their lead.


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