By Cat, Nov 2014 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)
You may be familiar with digestive bitters: a tincture or infusion of bitter herbs.
- Angostura Bitters (pictured right) is the most well known of commercial bitters; it is usually available in the mixed-drinks section of the grocery store because it is a major ingredient in cocktails such as the Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
- Swedish Bitters is also fairly well-known. I take this when I’m doing a juice fast.
- Peychaud’s Bitters, originally from New Orleans, is sweeter brand used in the Sazerac and Rob Roy cocktails. Unfortunately it now has undesirable ingredients added.
Both Angostura and Peychaud’s use gentian root as a main ingredient. Another fairly well known bitters is the non-alcoholic Swedish Bitters, which is available in most health-food stores.
Many of the foods and spices we eat are rich in bitters; for example, most of the members of the cabbage family, chicory, dandelion greens, juniper berries, saffron, turmeric, orange, lemon and grapefruit, and melons (plus many, many more). Some of our beverages are bitters too, such as beer, wine, gin, and gentian beverages. (1, 2, 7)
Why are bitters good for you? How are they made?
The benefits of bitters
I first learned of bitters in my parents’ bar: Al’s Bar in Bigfork, in the 1950s and early ’60s. If a customer had too much to drink and was starting to get a stomach ache, my Mom would recommend a glass of bitters and soda. Or if a customer was going next door to the Lake Cafe for dinner, she would give them a glass of bitters and soda to prepare the digestive system for the meal. Mom used Angostura Bitters, which is also an ingredient in several mixed drinks such as the Old Fashioned or Manhattan.
Bitters have been used for centuries to relieve digestive distress (gas, indigestion, etc.). They are very nutritious, being high in vitamins A, C and K, and minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium. When you chew them, they activate enzyme production and bile flow, to digest foods and relieve digestive distress, and to improve your absorption of nutrients in the food. A related benefit is to stimulate secretion of the hormone gastrin, which controls the amount of stomach acid produced by the stomach, a function very important for digestion. Bitters help our liver with detox activity, especially useful when our liver is overloaded with toxins. (3, 4).
The best way to get maximum benefit from bitter foods is to eat/drink them every day: a cup of coffee with your breakfast; bitter greens are delicious in salads; members of the cabbage family make great side dishes for an evening meal, especially when lightly braised; add a bit of lemon juice to a glass of water to accompany your meal.
I like to drink a tall glass of bitters and soda (soda water with about 1 teaspoon of bitters and a squeeze of fresh lime juice) before lunch and dinner – especially if it will be a big meal (like Thanksgiving dinner), as it helps to prepare the digestive tract for the meal that will soon begin. And in the hot summer, a glass of bitters and soda quenches my thirst almost instantly.
Making bitters formulas at home
Learning Herbs offers a recipe for making a grapefruit bitters formula (liquid) at home. Refer to their website (5) for instructions; the bitter ingredients are (5):
- artichoke leaves
- hawthorne berries
- hibiscus flowers
- star anise seeds
- fennel seed
- cracked black pepper
Learning Herbs also offers a Bitter Digestive Pastilles, which are tiny honey-sweetened balls of ground herbs). Refer to their website (6) for instructions; the bitter ingredients are (6):
- angelica root powder
- gentian root powder
- coriander powder
- orange peel powder
- black pepper (freshly ground)
Other Bitters Recipes, etc.
- The Kitchn, How to Make Homemade Bitters includes lots of good information on ingredients and methods for tinctures or infusions (7)
- Food and Wine, Gastronaut: How to Make Bitters (foodandwine.com/articles/gastronaut-how-to-make-bitters)
- Chow, Orange Bitters recipe (chow.com/recipes/12038-orange-bitters)
- Botanical Online on Bitter Food (botanical-online.com/english/Bitterfood.htm)
- Active.com on 10 Bitter Foods (active.com/weight-loss/articles/10-bitter-foods-that-cleanse-the-body-and-boost-performance)
- Mind Body Green on why eat bitter foods (mindbodygreen.com/0-13385/3-reasons-to-eat-bitter-greens-every-day.html)
- Livestrong on benefits of bitters (livestrong.com/article/295891-benefits-of-bitters)
- Learning Herbs Grapefruit Bitters recipe (learningherbs.com/newsletter/digestive-grapefruit-bitters)
- Learning Herbs Bitter Digestive Pastilles recipe (learningherbs.com/remedies-recipes/bitters-recipe)
- The Kitchn, How to Make Homemade Bitters includes lots of good information on ingredients and methods for tinctures or infusions (thekitchn.com/how-to-make-homemade-bitters-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-197883)