Bitters: From Medicine Cabinet to Bar Shelf…and back again

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

There has been a lot of talk of bitters lately as promoting digestion, but many times people are interested in how exactly that occurs.In a nutshell, when we taste “bitter’ it triggers a physiological process in the body.

Salivary secretion is stimulated as is the production of gastric secretions such as pepsin.  Pepsin is an enzyme responsible for breaking proteins in the stomach down into peptides. The presence of these peptides in turn stimulate the release of gastrin. Gastrin is a hormone which stimulates the release of gastric acids and cholecystokinin.  This hormone, in turn,  stimulates the pancreas and gall bladder to release digestive enzymes and bile.

This net result of all this biochemistry is improved digestion and relief of indigestion.  Some herbs have additional actions such as being spasmolytic which means  they relieve spasms in smooth muscle or carminative which means they help to dispel gas.

The earliest documented medicinal use of bitter herbs was in Ancient Egypt where archeologists have been able to determine that herbs and tree resins were steeped in grape wine. All of the major botanical medicine traditions: Greek, Chinese and Āyurveda incorporated the use of bitter herbs.

In Italy, particularly, the preparations evolved from being medicinal preparations to being routinely served with meals. Amaro  literally means ‘bitter’.  The Italian apéritif Nocino was a medicinal bitter preparation which found its way to Italian monasteries via wandering Celts.  Historians maintain that bitter herbs brewed into malt liquors were used to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations.”

Apéritifs were  served  before meals to stimulate the appetite while digestifs were served afterward to aid digestion.  Digestifs tend to be more sweet and heavy than apéritifs, which are light and dry.

In Britain, bitter preparations began to appear that were made by steeping herbs in alcohol which extracts and concentrates their flavorful constituents. Lash’s Bitters Company began marketing these medicinal preparations in the mid-19th century but after the company moved to San Francisco they found a market for their bitters as a bar room staple in the form and other companies followed suit. Many remember the familiar bottle of Angostura bitters in the liquor closet.

So how does one use bitters “medicinally”?  Traditionally the bitters blends would have been added to soda water. Tonic water is technically a bitters preparation being made with cinchona bark.  However I don’t tend to view them as medicine,  I see them as just another component of a health promoting diet.

Make Your Own Bitters

Bitters by Stephany Hoffelt Iowa City Herbalist

Don’t overlooks the usefulness of these bitter preparations during meal preparation.  A few dashes can add amazing   depth of flavor to your favorite recipe.

Making  homemade bitters can be quite simple and while there are more complex methods of making bitters, the following simple recipes will produce good results.

Traditional Bitters
2 tbsp. dried orange peel
Zest of one orange
¼ sour dried cherries
6 cardamom pods
1 ½ tablespoons cinnamon chips
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 vanilla bean
¼ tsp. whole cloves
¼ tsp. quassia chips (I substitute dried angelica root.)
¼ tsp. gentian root
¼ tsp. powdered black walnut leaf
2 ½ cups rye whiskey (honestly I use Irish whiskey, but rye comes closer to Angostura)

Put your ingredients in  jar and pour the alcohol over them until it reaches the top. Put the lid on tightly and let this steep for  at least three weeks.

Strain the liquid into a clean jar and set aside.

Now pour just enough filtered water over the ingredients in the jar to cover them. Add 1 tablespoon of cherry syrup or honey. Let this steep for three days, strain and add to the alcohol mixture you set aside.

Cranberry Orange Bitters
Zest of one orange
¼ cup dried orange peel
¼ cup fresh cranberries – crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seed
½ tsp. whole allspice
½ teaspoon gentian powder
1 slice of  fresh ginger root
2 ¼ cup 100 proof vodka

Use same process as above.

Angelica Bitters
3 oz. fresh angelica root
1 cups fresh basil leaves (common garden variety)
1 cups fresh rosemary
2 tbsp. dried orange peel  and zest from one orange
2 tbsp. fenugreek seed

Place the herbs in a blender and pour enough 100 proof vodka over the herbs to cover them. Blend the ingredients well. Pour them in a mason jar, cover tightly and let this mixture steep for 3 weeks.  Skip the secondary step from the directions above because alcohol will pull a lot of water from the fresh ingredients in this blend.  You don’t want to dilute it too much.

How to Use Your Bitters
There are an overwhelming number of articles flavoring cocktails with bitters, which neglects many other alternatives.  To begin with think of ways you can cook with your bitters concoctions.  Experiment with adding a few dashes  to salad dressings, relishes, marinades or soups.  Here are a few recipes to get you started.

Braised Greens
1 pound chopped greens of your choice
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 small diced onion
1 tsp. real salt
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 tsp. bitters blend

Heat the oil in a large fry pan which has a lid and sauté the garlic and onions until tender. Add the greens and stir them around over the heat for a moment. Turn down the heat and cover the pan. Allow the greens to cook down, stirring occasionally. When they are tender sprinkle with the salt, pepper and bitters. Stir well and serve.

This is a nice way to make a quick fruit salad.

Fruit Salad Dressing

1/3 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup packed mint leaves
Zest of one citrus fruit
1 tsp. bitters preparation
Put all of the ingredients except the bitters in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow this to steep overnight. Then strain. Toss with 9 cups of cubed fruit.

There are also ways to turn your  bitters preparations into  tasty beverages with negligible alcohol content.  You could add a half-teaspoon to a smoothie.  Or try the following recipes.

Lassi Digestif
1 1/4 cup frozen fruit
1 cup yogurt
2 tbsp. honey
1/2 teaspoon bitters blend

Mix these ingredients in a blender and enjoy in place of a dessert.

My take on the traditional bitters and soda water :

Bitters and Soda Water
½ tsp homemade bitters
8 ounce glass of sparkling water
1 tsp  of simple syrup or  raw local honey
Slice of orange

Add the bitters and orange slice to the sparkling water and stir.

This amount of bitters adds no more alcohol content than an equal amount of vanilla extract would add, so it is safe for children. An adult may adjust the dose to a teaspoon in the case of indigestion. You can also add a few drops to a cup of chamomile tea which has been used traditionally to enhance digestion.

My own personal favorite, which avoids alcohol entirely, is to make a seasoning mixture by grinding dry versions of  bitter herbs and sprinkling this blend on my food in place of salt and pepper.

*Note: make sure the Sumac you use has red berries. Poison Sumac has white berries and should not be touched, harvested or eaten since it is very toxic.