While bitter is not everyone's favorite flavor, they are making a comeback in the craft cocktail world. But that's not where they got their start.
Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, bitters were used as a common remedy for everything related to digestion and, honestly, pretty much everything else from warts to scurvy. They fell out of favor as pharmaceuticals became the go-to, but now, with a resurgence of wildcrafting as well as a growing body of scientific studies to back up the benefits, bitters are becoming a pantry and medicine chest favorite once again.
Beneficial Bitters It is hard to believe that something so simple as eating something bitter can have such a huge positive impact on your health. But believe it with bitters!
Bitter is one of our five basic tastes. Our body has receptors for this taste not only in our mouths, but throughout our entire digestive tract as well as our livers and pancreases. Bitter stimulates our bodies to produce more digestive secretions which encourages better uptake of nutrients and better detoxification of unwanted elements. We now know that bitters can even have a positive impact on our stress levels due to the gut-brain connection (Harvard Medical School).
Note that ingesting bitters is not a primary treatment for serious health issues, but it can provide a powerful boost to overall health from digestive and detoxification support to reducing systemic inflammation (National Institutes of Health).
Other Health Benefits Sugar and appetite control If your sugar tooth is out of control, bitters can come to your rescue by impacting the brain receptors that manage sugar cravings (Scientific American, May 30, 2018).
Overeating in general is, at least partially, controlled by gut hormones PYY and GLP-1 which are responsible for telling us when and how much to eat (NIH, 2012).
Liver benefits Your liver is a heavy-lifter when it comes to removing toxins from your body. Bitters can be a good support for this busy organ by aiding in elimination of toxins, metabolizing sugars and fats, and helping to boost hormones like cholecystokinin that support the gallbladder. Bitters may also produce positive effects on blood sugar levels, better skin quality and arthritis due to its anti-inflammatory properties (NIH, 2013).
Historically Popular Bitters . Artichoke Leaf
. Angelica Root
. Barberry Root
. Black Walnut
. Burdock Root
. Chicory Root
. Dandelion Root
. Gentian Root
. Licorice Root
. Wild Cherry Bark
How to Use Bitters Bitters are very condensed and, therefore, just a little bit goes a long way. Check with your trusted care provider for specific dosing, but in general, a few drops will do the job. They are traditionally taken internally by adding a few drops of tincture under the tongue or by diluting in another liquid. As a digestive aid, they are best taken directly before or after a meal.
People use them to treat specific symptoms or at low doses as part of a daily health routine. For specific treatments as for parasites or arthritis, consult your health care professional. For daily maintenance, most doctors recommend 10-20 drops in water, or whatever the packaging recommends (if using a commercial product) as this is largely dependent on the potency of the product.
Preparing to Make Your Own Bitters are super simple to make and commonly contain two just things: 1) A bitter ingredient, and 2) A carrier - typically (40-50 proof) alcohol. Aromatics and spices may also be added to bitters.
If you prefer to make your bitters without alcohol, you can use glycerin or a nonalcoholic elixer like Seedlip (seedlipdrinks.com/) or make an oil-based tincture with coconut, olive or grapeseed oil. Just know that alcohol extracts the most out of your bitter ingredient and the amount of alcohol per dose is very small.
My favorite super simple bitters to make are Black Walnut Green Hull Tincture. Partly because I have two huge Black Walnut trees in my backyard, but also because they are SO bitter and make me feel really good when I ingest them.
April's Favorite Black Walnut Green Hull Tincture Recipe
Harvest whole-hulled black walnuts in good condition—about two quarts of nuts for one quart of tincture.
Choose your carrier. If using alcohol, choose a good quality 40-50% one. I prefer vodka as it is mostly flavorless.
Clean your vessel (a Mason jar works great, but any vessel with a tightly fitting lid will do). Fill about 1/3 full with alcohol or your carrier of choice.
Cut off the hulls in small pieces and add to your vessel.
Fill vessel with hulls and add enough carrier to cover.
Screw lid on firmly and store out of direct sunlight for 4-6 weeks, shaking or stirring every few days.
Using a fine strainer, strain out all matter and store your black walnut tincture in a clean glass bottle. Note that colored glass helps preserve the active ingredients.
Label with a Sharpie or adhesive label with name and date decanted.
Most potent the same season as made, but the tincture retains some medicinal value for years, depending on conditions.
Spices, botanicals, and herbs may be added as flavoring agents or for their own beneficial properties.
Who Should Not Ingest Bitters Bitters should be avoided by people with certain health conditions or if you are pregnant. Bitters may also interact with certain medications, so check with your healthcare provider. Bitters are not recommended for children.
Bitter Foods Are Beneficial Too—And Delicious Once You Get Used to Them You can reap the benefits of bitters by seeking out bitter-tasting foods and beverages too! Some examples include:
70% or above dark chocolate
bitters added to beverages (cocktails, mocktails, shrubs, etc.)
I hope you enjoy adding this flavor profile to your diet as much as I do!