By Chef Ron Spaziani
Cooking with bitters may sound crazy, but after reading this article you may get inspired to wipe the dust off that bottle of bitters on your shelf and get to cooking. As you may know, almost every cocktail that calls for bitters is improved by just a few dashes. But as popular as bitters have become in bar culture, they get less play as cooking ingredients. You may be surprised that bitters are just as good at adding flavor to food as they are at adding a kick to booze. Actually, they might even be better with food. This ancient Flavor enhancer has been jazzing up items for countless years.
A Brief Bitters History
The earliest origins of bitters can be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who are believed to have infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine. Later on, this practice was further developed during the Middle Ages, where the availability of distilled alcohol coincided with a renaissance in pharmacognosy (the branch of knowledge concerned with medicinal drugs obtained from plants or other natural sources), which made possible far more concentrated herbal bitters and tonic preparations.
Many of the various brands and styles of digestive bitters made today reflect herbal stomachic and tonic preparations whose roots are claimed to be traceable back to renaissance era pharmacopeia and traditions. By the 19th century, the British practice of adding herbal bitters (used as preventive medicines) to Canary wine had become immensely popular in the American colonies. By 1806, American publications referenced the popularity of a new preparation termed cocktail, which was described as a combination of “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”(Imbibe Magazine).
What are Bitters?
There are two different types of bitters- potable and non-potable. Non-potable bitters we are meant to be enjoyed on their own. These bitter style liqueurs have been around since the mid-1800’s and are still just as popular today. This category includes Italian amari (such as Fernet Branca and Campari) and bitter digestifs, such as Underberg. We will be focusing more on the non-potable type of bitters; meant to be enjoyed as additives to your cocktail recipes (thesavory.com).
Cocktail bitters are described as the spice or the “ketchup” of the cocktail world by many. Bitters are often literally made of spice (along with other ingredients).These concoctions are infused with many things that you might already have in a spice rack in your kitchen. Dried roots (gentian), barks (angostura, cassia), seeds or pods (cardamom), flower buds and stigmas (saffron), fruits (dried lemon peel), and so on. Also Bitters serve much the same role in cocktails that spices serve in food. They add depths of complexity and flavor to the final product (seriouseats.com).
Bitters & Culinary Recipes
So you are probably wondering by know how to use Bitters as an ingredient in the Kitchen. There are dozens of different types of bitters on the market to customize your current recipes. For example, one of the most common bitters are Angostura orange bitters. It is made from the peels of sun-ripened Caribbean oranges. It can be used in seafood dishes, which call for citrus twist. Another popular bitters that can be used is Fernet-Branca. It is a good match for refined dishes such as "Risotto alla Milanese" or steak tartare. Bitters can add a robust flavor to savory sauces such as barbeque and remoulades or Salad Dressing. Some chefs even add bitters to the fillings in their pies or as a flavorful kick to ice cream.
Some other dishes that may be upgraded with bitters include burgers, steaks, Shepard’s pie, orange beef or chicken, fish cakes, and chilled asparagus.
Here are some recipes for you to get started
Caramelized Onion, Beef, and Bitters Stew with Parsley Salad
3 tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter
2 lb beef chuck, cut into cubes
11/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
3 medium onions, sliced
1 qt chicken stock or low-sodium broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes
3 tablespoons Angostura bitters
1 bay leaf
1 cup parsley leaves
1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot
11/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Sprinkle beef with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper, then sear beef, in batches, turning occasionally, until browned, about eight minutes total. Transfer beef to a medium heavy pot.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and onions to skillet with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently and reducing heat as necessary, until onions are deep golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Add chicken stock to skillet, scraping up any browned bits, then transfer to pot with beef. Stir in bitters and bay and bring to a simmer. Simmer stew, partially covered, until beef is very tender, about three hours. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Toss parsley with shallot, lemon, oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve stew topped with parsley salad and sour cream.
Marinated Jamaican Jerk Chicken
60 ml of vinegar
2 tablespoons of brown rum
2 Antillean pepperonis
1 red onion, finely chopped
4 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of Golden Falernum by The Bitter Truth
1 teaspoon of thyme
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 teaspoons of salt
2 teaspoons of black pepper
4 teaspoons of spice mixture, preferably Jamaican or similar
4 teaspoons of cinnamon
4 teaspoons of nutmeg
4 teaspoons of chopped ginger
2 teaspoons of molasses
1 chicken, about 2 ½ kilograms
120 ml of lemon juice
Fill a food processor or blender with the vinegar, rum, pepperoni, onions, spring onions, thyme, olive oil, salt, pepper, spice mixture, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, the golden Falernum from the Bitter Truth, and the molasses and blend until the mixture is homogenous.
Put the chicken in a large freezer bag or in a pan that will fit in the refrigerator. Cover the chicken with all of the lemon juice and the blended mixture and close the bag (or cover the pan) and store the chicken in the fridge overnight.
The next day, drain the marinade from the bag (or pan) with the chicken and cook briefly, allowing the marinade to simmer at a low boil for 10 minutes or so. During the baking process, you'll douse the chicken with this sauce every now and then to keep it moist.
You can also keep some of the marinade sauce to pour over the chicken right before serving, or to mix with some ketchup and soy sauce and serve as a dip before the meal.
In the oven
Preheat the oven to 180° Celsius, slice the chicken in half, place both halves in a casserole dish with the skin facing upwards, and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Don't forget to continually drench the chicken in the marinade sauce throughout the baking process! Take out the chicken when it's ready, cover the dish with aluminum foil, and let it sit for 15 minutes or so before slicing.
On the grill or stove top
Heat up your grill or stove top to a medium temperature, add some final salt and pepper to the chicken, and put the chicken on the grill or pan with the skin facing the heat. Cover and grill the chicken for about an hour. The temperature inside the covered grill should remain between 180° and 200° Celsius. Rotate the chicken a few times to ensure that it cooks evenly, and drench the bird with marinade now and then while it's cooking. When the chicken is ready, place it in a casserole dish and cover with aluminum foil for 15 minutes or so before slicing.
Cut the chicken and serve with black beans and rice
For more information on bitters in the culinary world, check out the articles below:
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