Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is Not Tart

A cookbook devoted to an unexpected flavor.

Bitter greens ravioli.
Bitter greens ravioli.

Photo by Aya Brackett

It is possible that there is no subject for a cookbook less likely than bitterness. Bugs, obviously. The cronut, fine. Fifty Shades of Kale, if you must. But bitterness? Bitterness sends a message fine-tuned by thousands of years of accidental berry poisonings, and that message is: Spit.

If sweetness is a siren song, bitterness is an SOS. It’s a warning that something is not right here. Just put down the double espresso and walk away. As Jennifer McLagan writes in the new cookbook Bitter, with an impressive disregard for the buyer’s remorse of her readers, “A reluctance to eat bitter foods is understandable, as we all have an innate aversion to bitter tastes.”

But this is a peculiar moment in American culinary life. We no longer flee from the taste of bitter. We fête it: hop-fueled beers, single-origin coffees, intensely dark chocolates, imported amaros, foraged wild greens. These are not peripheral tastes in modern America. They’re the tastes that people who get excited about food and drink are apt to get most excited about. The modern American food movement is bitter at its core.

This is why there is now a cookbook with the wonderfully unlikely, full-disclosure title of Bitter. (McLagan has an admirable history of transparency: Her previous books include Bones and Fat.) We no longer find the taste of bitter poisonous. In sensible, occasionally alcoholic quantities, we even find it appealing.

All this is very weird and new, and if it does not seem weird and new, just ask Ken Grossman, who founded the pioneering Sierra Nevada Brewery in 1980. I did. How bitter was beer back then, I asked? It wasn’t, Grossman said. For decades, every major brewer had been slowly dropping what brewers call bitterness units. By the time Sierra Nevada was founded, bitterness as a flavor in American beer was essentially extinct. He remembers that a lot of people tasted the inaugural Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and said, Whoa, this is way too bitter. How popular did he think this new taste would be? “I recall being quoted when we were at 5,000 barrels that I guessed maybe that the domestic audience was 10,000 to 12,000 thousand barrels,” Grossman said. Today, Sierra Nevada is up to almost a million barrels. Its flagship pale ale now has mass-market appeal.

Then I called John Scharffenberger, who founded Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in 1996—the first bean-to-bar chocolate-maker in the United States since the 1940s. The signature flavor of Scharffen Berger was intensely bittersweet; it was chocolate that tasted like chocolate. This flavor, like the flavor of Sierra Nevada’s pale ale, more or less did not exist at the time. But it would soon. “When we arrived in the chocolate world and started presenting people with chocolates that were less sweet,” Scharffenberger says, “we took off like a rocket.”

Today there’s no shortage of craft breweries and bean-to-bar chocolatiers, and it sometimes seems like there’s no beer too hoppy and no chocolate too bitter. Bitter is back. This may be the most surprising part of the very surprising American food and drink revolution: the resurgence of an entire taste category that had all but disappeared.

It’s a taste that is more elusive the more you consider it. “It is now understood that bitter is not one taste but a collection of many different tastes,” McLagan writes. “The bitterness of grapefruit is not the same as the bitterness of coffee or Brussels sprouts. Harsh, pungent, and tannic are all words we use to describe bitterness, but are they enough?” And indeed, she later adds astringent, caustic, tart, sharp, acrid, and for balance, bittersweet.

To make it yet more vexing, bitter is a peculiarly personal taste. It’s highly subjective, the product of our culture, our genome, our exposure to the chicory family. Your stir-fried bitter melon is my disastrous take-out order mistake; my morning coffee is your toxic sludge. Defining bitter is a little like the Supreme Court defining pornography: You know it when you taste it.

But the point of Bitter is not bitterness per se. “Nobody wants to eat a meal composed entirely of bitter tasting foods,” McLagan writes. “Once or twice in a dinner is enough.” Instead, she argues for its capacity to enlarge how we experience food. If we cook without bitter, we cook with an impoverished palate; we eat food that has less character. A little bitterness makes food more complex, more subtle, more haunting. So McLagan outlines strategies for the deployment of bitterness: To take the edge off a too-bitter vegetable, sprinkle it with salt, not sugar. Pair a bitter green with an unapologetically fatty meat. Or open with it: Bitter sparks the appetite, so unleash it early on. (Or pour it in aperitif form. Perhaps the French bitter Suze, distilled from gentian, which McLagan calls the most bitter plant in the world.)

Author Jennifer McLagan.
Author Jennifer McLagan

Photo by Rob Fiocca

In these recipes, bitterness is not amplified but tamed. Recipes like endive with miso dressing, or tea-poached peaches, or Campari granita all make a strong case for the paradoxical appeal of bitterness. (Toast soup, on the other hand, sounds like a dish conceived by Roald Dahl.) Bitter is as judicious and wise a cookbook as the taste can hope for. It even has a recipe with bitter melon that looks momentarily appealing, which is as good a recipe as bitter melon can expect. Plus, you learn that a French term for wild dandelion greens is pissenlit, or “piss in the bed.” And that men have receptors for bitter in their testicles. As with many elements of bitterness, science cannot say why.

Many of our now standard fruits and vegetables emerged out of the well of bitterness; the sweetness we know has been painstakingly coaxed into them. But when their quotient of bitterness was lowered, their benefits were too. Grapefruit is high in the antioxidant naringin, but the sweet pink grapefruit of today—which has vanquished the white variety—has far less of it; grapefruit juice filters it out almost entirely. We think we’re eating fruits and vegetables for the nutrients, but in order to get us to eat those foods, the nutrients have been stripped out. In a new, golden age of bitter, though, the opposite might be true. Bitterness might become not a shortcoming but a selling point: You can taste the antioxidants, the ads will say.

American food has long been caricatured as ruled by sweetness. (When I used to sell wine, the axiom was Americans talk dry and buy sweet.) But the rise of bitterness suggests an alternate theory. Maybe sweetness is less important than intensity. We want our salty to be more salty; we want our sweet to be more sweet. And perhaps we even want our bitter to be more bitter. We may have tamed the bitterness in many things—grapefruits, cucumbers, eggplants—but we’ve amplified it in others. Chocolate, coffee, beer, amaros: There’s been a race not away from bitterness but toward it. Pity our poor, bitter-fearing hunter-gatherer ancestors. If only they could taste the distilled gentian now.

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes by Jennifer McLagan. Ten Speed Press.

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