Bitterness is a critical component of building intensity and complexity of flavor, but I find in the States we often shy away from using bitterness to accentuate our food and instead focus on tired adages like “fat is flavor” (no, fat is fat). Today’s post is a tribute to bitterness and a short guide on different ways you can play with different styles, levels and textures of bitterness.
Why is bitter an important part of flavor? To start, our taste buds are extremely attuned to the taste of bitterness, especially the back of our mouths — scientists theorize this evolved as our last chance to detect potentially poisonous foods (as almost all toxic plants are bitter). But more interestingly, as one of our primary 5 tastes (or 6 if you count fat), bitterness balances out umami (similar to how sourness helps neutralize fattiness). I apply this tidbit of information in my dishes by increasing both the umami and bitterness as I cook, knowing that as long as the two are in sync, the final product will still taste balanced. IMO incorporating in a bitter note is a big part of the “craveability” factor that we are striving for when we cook. Many times when I taste something very delicious, but just stand more than a few bites before my taste buds are overwhelmed (read: every time I eat truffles, wagyu or caviar) I find it’s because there’s just not enough bitterness present to make me want more. While it’s not the flavor you want to blanket the food, I liken it to little boosts of caffeine to your taste buds to keep them stimulated and keep the food feeling interesting as we continue to eat (maybe this why naturally caffeinated items are bitter? )
Adding onto my guiding theory of developing top/middle/base notes as we cook, you can also divide up the eating process this way. What hits your tongue first versus last? What flavors are present in each of these stages? Where the bitterness “sits” in a dish is a manifestation of both how it independently smells & tastes (e.g. celery seed is a middle note; dill seed a base note) but also when & how it’s incorporated into the cooking process, as it determines WHEN that bitterness will spark our taste receptors. Sprinkling a warm, rich, bitter ingredient like cacao powder on top to finish a dish versus braising meat in juicy but tannic red wine for hours feel different because the ingredient’s bitterness reaches our tongues in varying stages when eating. How that bitter ingredient is cut & at what point it's eaten also changes its final perception: large strips of collards as a side yields different results than having thin chiffonades incorporated throughout a dish.
I hope this appreciation post encourages everyone to more experiment more with bitterness all throughout your cooking. Email me for more suggestions or any questions!
(Fun fact: One of the tests the Museum of Natural History conducted to see if guests were a “super taster” was to hand them a piece of paper with a few droplets of bitter essence. Most people just taste paper, but super tasters will find it exceedingly bitter.)