What Is Bitterness?

Flavor profile, how it can be used, and where it is found.

Black Coffee
Black coffee has a bitter flavor. Photo by Teo [flickr]

Bitterness is one of the five taste sensations and is one that humans are particularly sensitive to. The ability to detect bitterness is thought to have evolved as a way to protect us from toxic plants and other substances, which often taste bitter. Although bitterness often gets a bad rap, it can be used to create well-rounded and desirable flavor palates. Bitterness is present in many of our favorite foods including chocolate, coffee, and beer.

How Does Bitter Taste?

Bitterness can be described as a sharp, pungent, or disagreeable flavor. Bitterness is neither salty nor sour, but may at times accompany these flavor sensations. Many people are innately opposed to bitter flavors, but a liking for it can and is acquired. Compounds that have an alkaline pH, such as baking soda, often have a bitter flavor.

Scientific research has found that some humans are more sensitive to bitter flavors than others. These individuals are referred to as "super tasters" and are often of Asian, African, or South American descent. Being a super taster may explain why some individuals find the flavor of vegetables highly disagreeable. Most vegetables contain at least some bitterness, especially when raw.

What Foods are Bitter?

Dark, leafy greens are well known for their bitter flavor. Often, leafy vegetables increase in bitterness as they mature. For this reason, many people prefer tender young greens to their more mature and bitter counterparts.

Greens that are well known for their bitter flavor include kale, dandelion greens, and broccoli.

Cocoa is another food that is enjoyed for their bitter flavor. Pure cocoa has a distinct bitterness, which can be used to balance flavors like sweet or spicy in other foods. Adding sugar and cream to cocoa significantly reduces its bitterness, making it more palatable.

Likewise, black coffee can be quite bitter. Although sugar and cream can be added to reduce the bitterness, many grow to enjoy the sharp flavor of black coffee. The type of bean and the unique roasting method will also impact coffee's level of bitterness.

Citrus peels are well known for its bitterness, most of which resides in the white pith. As with most bitter flavors, it can be undesirable on its own, but when combined with other flavor elements, it can provide dimension and balance. Citrus peels are often added to spice blends or sweet drinks or desserts for this reason. Orange marmalade is an excellent example of pairing bitter and sweet.

Other fruits and vegetables that may provide bitter flavors may include grapefruit, bitter melon, mustard greens, and olives. Beverages such as tonic water, bitters, and mate tea are all also considered bitter. Before shying away from bitter ingredients in the future, explore how they can be combined with complimentary tastes to build a complex and enjoyable flavor profile.