An Introduction to Bitters: How to Use, Pros, Types, and Recipes
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Not just for cocktails Bitters is — as the name implies — an infusion that’s created from predominantly bitter ingredients. These ingredients comprise aromatics and botanicals that can include any combination of herbs, roots, bark, fruit, seeds, or flowers. If you’ve visited a cocktail lounge lately, you’ve probably noticed additions like Angostura bitters on the mixed drink menu. But you can find bitters everywhere from the bar to the medicine cabinet. While bitters are a trendy craft cocktail component, that’s not what they first started as. And it’s certainly not all that they are. This apothecary staple was first marketed in the 1700s as a remedy for common ailments such as digestion irregularities. Medicinal herbs and botanicals were preserved in alcohol and touted as a cure-all. Throughout the next few centuries, bitters would be used for everything from a stimulant for the troops in the 1800s to a proposed treatment for malaria before making their way to the modern happy hour menu. Now, with emerging science to back up the benefits, bitters have once again gained popularity for aiding digestive health, curbing sugar cravings, boosting the immune system, and even easing stress. This guide will review exactly how bitter ingredients affect our health, who can benefit from bitters, and how to make them at home.
The health benefits for bitters How is simply eating something bitter-tasting better for your health? Scientists label bitter as one of the seven basic tastes. Our body contains tons of receptors ( T2Rs ) for bitter compounds in not only our mouth and tongue, but our stomach, gut, liver, and pancreas. This is mostly for protective reasons. Our bitter receptors are built as a “warning” to our body, as most dangerous and poisonous things are highly bitter tasting. The stimulation of these bitter receptors promotes healthy digestion by increasing digestive secretions. This leads to better absorption of nutrients, natural detoxification of the liver, and — thanks to the gut-brain connection — bitters can even have a positive effect on stress. But remember, bitters are not a primary treatment. Think of them as a health boost to help the body run more smoothly — from kick-starting the digestive tract to boosting the immune system. They shouldn’t replace any treatment a doctor has prescribed. Digestion and gut benefits When your digestion needs a little support, bitters can facilitate stomach acid and act as a digestive aid. This can not only ease indigestion, but also heartburn, nausea, cramping, bloating, and gas. Bitters for digestion and gut health gentian
burdock Immune and inflammation benefits Burdock is an inflammation fighter that has been shown to have positive effects in people with osteoarthritis. Paired with common additions, like ginger and turmeric, bitters can become an immune-boosting powerhouse. The anti-inflammatory compounds in these ingredients have powerful antioxidant effects to protect the body from autoimmune diseases. Bitters for immune function and inflammation Oregon grape
chamomile Sugar and appetite control benefits Curb sugar cravings quickly with the help of bitters, which help counter the brain receptors that drive us to consume sweets. Bitters can promote overall healthy eating habits and control overeating . Consuming bitter foods stimulates the production of PYY and GLP-1 hormones, which help control and suppress the appetite . Bitters for sugar and appetite control artichoke leaf
gentian root Liver health benefits Certain bittering agents help support the liver at fulfilling its main job: removing toxins from the body and regulating our metabolic processes. Bitters give the liver a boost by aiding in the elimination of toxins and detoxification, coordinating the metabolism of sugar and fats, and helping release gallbladder-supporting hormones like cholecystokinin (CCK). Bitters for sugar and appetite control artichoke leaf
chicory root Bitters can also have a positive effect on blood sugar levels , healthy skin, and stress.
The basics of ingesting, creating, and experimenting You only need a few drops Bitters are very potent, and dosing and frequency will vary on what you’re using them for. But often a few drops will do. You can take them internally either by placing a few drops from a tincture on the tongue or diluting with another liquid, such as sparkling water or in cocktails. When you take it might matter though: If your goal of using bitters is to ease digestive issues, consumption should occur either directly before or after meals. How often you take them differs for everyone. While you can use bitters at low doses as part of your daily routine, you may find that bitters help you when used as needed. In the beginning, it’s best to start with small doses of bitters before assessing its effectiveness and your body’s reaction. Before you make your own, learn the basics Bitters contain two things: bitter ingredients and a carrier, which is typically alcohol (although we’ll also review nonalcoholic bitters further below). Aromatics and spices may also be added to bitters. Common bittering agents include: dandelion root
angelica root Spices, botanicals, and herbs are added as flavoring agents but in some cases they also provide additional benefits (i.e. lavender in a stress-relief bitters). These aromatics — to name a few — can include: cinnamon
cocoa or coffee beans
anise The ratio The best thing about bitters is that you can really experiment. While there’s no set-in-stone ratio for bitters, the general proportion is typically 1 part bittering agents to 5 parts alcohol (1:5). Botanicals and aromatics are generally a 1:2 ratio to bitters or equal parts. Here’s what you need to make and store bitters at home To make and store bitters properly, the following tools and equipment are needed: a mason jar or other container with a tight-fitting lid
glass dropper bottles, if making tinctures
measuring cups and spoons, or a scale
spice grinder, or mortar and pestle
a fine-mesh strainer (cheesecloth may also be used)
labels Can it be alcohol-free? Bitters is traditionally and most commonly made with alcohol. Alcohol used to make bitters is typically between 40-50 percent ABV. Alcohol helps extract as much as possible from the bittering agents, while also preserving the shelf life of the bitters. The amount of alcohol in a single dose of bitters is very minimal. However, you can still make bitters without alcohol. Bitters can be made with glycerin, a liquid sugar, or with a nonalcoholic spirit like SEEDLIP.
How to create your own bitters Making your own bitters doesn’t have to be intimidating. Actually, it’s easier, more hands-off, and takes less effort than most realize. About 90 percent of making your own bitters will be waiting for it to be ready, as bitters takes a few weeks to infuse. Let’s learn the basics of bitters in this step-by-step DIY guide. A snapshot at creating your own recipes If you have an idea of what you want to put together, you can follow these instructions. Directions: Combine bittering agents, aromatics (if using), and alcohol using a basic 1:5 ratio of bittering agents to alcohol. Place the bitters in clean glass jars with a tight-fitting lid (mason jars work well). Label the bitters. Store the bitters in a cool, dry place, like a cupboard. Shake the jar of bitters daily. Infuse the bitters for several weeks. The length of time needed will depend on the ingredients used. You can infuse bitters for as little as 5 days for milder bitters, or up to 3 weeks. Strain your mixture using a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer. Bottle your bitters in containers or tinctures. Fresh or dried herbs and botanicals can be used. If using fresh, aim for a 1:2 ratio of ingredients to alcohol and if using dried, stick with the 1:5 standard (or less). Six recipes to start with: liver-balancing bitters
sugar-curbing bitters The alcohol Use alcohol with a 40-50 percent ABV. Vodka is a great choice because of its clean, neutral flavor, but bourbon, rum, or rye also work. To make bitters alcohol-free, use a nonalcoholic spirit such as SEEDLIP. But note that alcohol-free bitters have shorter shelf lives. Since alcohol is a natural preservative, the higher the alcohol content in bitters, the longer the shelf life will be. Infuse time Bitters should infuse for five days to two weeks. The longer bitters infuse, the stronger they’ll be. You should let your bitters sit until it develops a prominent, potent flavor and smells very fragrant. To make your bitters even stronger, infuse for four weeks. Where to buy Purchase the herbs and bittering agents for your homemade bitters easily online from websites like Mountain Rose Herbs. If you’re not ready to take the plunge into DIY bitters just yet, there are many companies making bitters. Popular brands you can buy from: Urban Moonshine offers Digestive Bitters, Healthy Liver Bitters, and Calm Tummy Bitters. ($18.99/2 oz)
Flora Health makes alcohol-free Swedish bitters. ($11.99/3.4 oz)
Scrappy’s Bitters offers a vast variety of bitters, from lavender to celery, for cocktails and beyond. ($17.99/5 oz)
Angostura Bitters is one of the oldest makers of bitters still around today. ($22/16 oz) The general cost of bitters The cost of making your own bitters will vary by the herbs and bittering agents you’re using. The most common bittering agents (burdock root, artichoke leaf, angelica, dandelion root, and gentian) average $2.50-$5 per ounce.
Who shouldn’t take bitters Bitters should be avoided by people with certain health conditions or anyone who’s pregnant. Bitters may also interact with certain medications and should not be used by children. Always speak with your doctor about possible interactions of medicinal herbs and plants with your current medication. Examples of side effects or complications include: Burdock root may have a moderate effect on anticoagulants and diabetes medications.
Dandelion may interfere with the absorption of antibiotics.
Artichoke leaf should not be used by those with gallstones as it may increase bile flow.
Angelica root, yarrow, mugwort, and passionflower (among others) should not be used by pregnant women as it may cause harmful uterine contractions, miscarriage, or premature labor.
Wormwood shouldn’t be used by those with kidney disorder or a history of seizures.
Gentian root shouldn’t be used by those with low blood pressure.
Those with allergies or sensitivities to certain plants, flowers, or herb families should avoid bitters containing them.