Is bitter bad in food?

Bitter is one of the 5 basic tastes and can be most easily explained by a cup of coffee. If you like coffee black, you like a “bitter” taste because coffee encompasses bitter. If you like coffee with a bit of cream or sugar you like balancing bitter with some fat or sweet. So when cooking and thinking about “bitter” remember your coffee.

Is bitter in food necessary?

The short answer is not always but really great cooking often works it in. It is an important balance to dishes that taste overly one-dimensional. When something is too fatty (rich) or too sweet bitter will help balance. It also builds a layer of flavor quickly (think yogurt with honey, now think yogurt with honey and lime zest). It becomes something much more versatile to be used tucked under smoked salmon on rye bread or dolloped onto a soup.

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Common Ways to Add Bitter Taste

Here's a rundown of way to work in bitterness into cooking.

Coffee Adds Bitter

As mentioned coffee is a bitter food. That’s why an affogato (espresso poured over ice cream) is such a delicious dessert. Fat, sweet, bitter, hot, cold. Look at all those layers in two ingredients. For a different take on coffee try Four Sigmatic (mushroom coffee) or Lifeboost Coffee.

Bison Kebabs With Red Wine Chocolate Glaze

Chocolate Adds Bitter

If you’ve ever had a Mexican mole negro or Red wine chocolate sauce you know chocolate is not just used for desserts. It adds a pleasant bitterness to savory dishes. Try using a micro-plane to grate a bit of chocolate in your chili to add a new dimension.

Does Matcha / Tea Add Bitter Taste?

Tea and Matcha are another angle on bitter. That is why Matcha is so popular in many desserts

Olive Oil Adds Bitter:

Olive oil is a perfectly balanced “bitter food” fat and bitterness are balanced beautifully which is partly why the stuff is loved the world over as opposed to something like canola oil that lacks that bitter roundness. We love grassy, punchy olive oil like Sicilian varieties or Brightland Olive Oil. Try a new olive oil from a new country every bottle you buy. You’ll expense a big difference in flavor.

Example of a Bitter Taste you already know and probably love. Gin & Tonic.

Gin and tonic. The quinine in tonic balance the floral aroma of gin making this a refreshing beverage. Tonic is a perfect example of bitter. On its own it’s a bit much but when mixed it transforms into something special.

A Tonic We Recommend:

Pratt Standard Tonic

Notes on Balancing Bitter:

If you taste a dish and it has bitter flavor, fats and sweetness can help smooth the bitterness of a dish. The balance works in reverse as well, add butter to cut through the richness or sweetness of a meal.

Cooking With Bitter Greens

Bitter greens like escarole, chicory, endive, sorrel, dandelion and kale can be the base for well-balanced dishes when paired with a slightly sweet or fatty dressing. This is why a kale cesar works or a Waldorf (endive with blue cheese and walnuts). You can simply wilt down any bitter green in olive oil, season with salt , add a drizzle of honey, a spritz of lemon and shave over pecorino or parmesan and you have simply covered the 5 basic tastes of bitter, salt, sweet, sour and umami.

Using Bitter Spices

Bitter spices like Fenugreek, Oregano and Turmeric can be used.

Bitter Vegetables

Bitter melon or gourd is used throughout Filipino and Indian cooking.

Another Common Use? Bitters in Cocktails.

Bitters in cocktails have long added more dimension. The most famous is Angostura. Trying cooking with bitters! Adding it to guacamole or a dash on a BLT will round out the flavor profile well.


Tasting as you cook and adjusting flavors is a skill that chefs must master to perfect the dish. Stay aware of flavor saturation and cleanse your palate as you taste to ensure your tastebuds do not adjust to the flavors before they are balanced. Mastering the balance of the five key flavors is the hallmark of a skillful chef.

Bitter is not to be ignored. It can be confusing at first but once you understand its powers to balance sweet it’s very helpful to improve your cooking. A great word to learn is cloying (overly sweet and rich), as in "a cloying dish would benefit from bitterness". Think of too-sticky and sweet chicken wings getting a hit of lime zest. That touch of bitterness transforms the final taste.


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