Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Cooking with bitters

Unless you're a craft cocktailer, chances are your bottle of bitters is gathering dust in the back of the liquor cabinet.

UNLESS you're a craft cocktailer, chances are your bottle of bitters is gathering dust in the back of the liquor cabinet.

But even if you're not all about the ever-expanding world of artisanal libations, dust that bottle of herbaceous goodness off and bring it into the kitchen.

That's what Hunter Fike does, anyway. Fike is the big cheesemonger at Di Bruno Brothers, which sells all manner of fancy bitters - in flavors like cherry, celery and orange. For Fike, cooking with bitters is more old-school than newfangled. He learned it from his grandmother Wanda Cavalieri, and mom, Denise Fike.

Nonna knows best

"Let me just start by saying that everybody thinks their grandmother and mom are the best cooks in the world, but it's really true for me," said Fike, whose grandmom was born in Rome and emigrated to the U.S. as a young girl. His family's cooking is rooted in Italian tradition, with a twist. "My grandmother isn't afraid of experimenting," he said. "She knew about umami before people were calling it that."

Fike's grandfather was a cocktail fanatic, and one day Wanda grabbed his bottle of Angostura bitters and shook it into her meatball mix. The recipe is now a family classic.

"Bitters have this ability to add a richness to food, that ineffable it factor that you just can't put your finger on," said Fike.

Made with barks and roots, dried fruits, citrus and spices, a good bitters can bring flavors together. It's the salt to the soup, the vanilla extract to the layer cake. Traditional bitters is made with a neutral spirit. But today's alchemists might use brandy or rum, age the concoction in whiskey barrels and distill all manner of exotic fruits and veggies to make a bolder, better bitters.

Old spirit, new uses

Bitters have been around for thousands of years. They were originally alcohol-based tinctures used to cure everything from hiccups to hangovers, according to Vancouver mixologist Lauren Mote, who, along with chef/partner Jonathon Chovancek, created the Bittered Sling line in 2012. Chovancek, who owns the downtown Vancouver hotspot Café Medina, has been cooking with bitters since the '90s.

"Our aim is to inspire creativity in the home and professional cook. We build flavor profiles to work both in the glass and on the plate," said the chef, who, along with Mote, pitched their line to the bartenders at this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention, in New Orleans.

Cooks should look at bitters like a spice rack in a bottle, advised the chef. As to which bitters to use for what, he suggests using a recipe as a starting point, then letting your palate be your guide. Lighter preparations of seafood lend themselves to citrus flavors - in the Bittered Sling line that might be Lem-Marrakech, Orange & Juniper, or Grapefruit & Hops. Aromatic bitters using stronger spices and chocolate work well in marinades and brine, and as finishers for sauces.

Mote describes bitters as "high-proof infusions with thoughtful ingredients . . . I don't think we could have made room for bitters during the Barbie cocktail phase of the '80s and early '90s, when so many drinks were brightly colored and highly sugared," said Mote. "But bitters are back."

Shake to make

If you're unsure about a particular bitters' flavor profile, the best way to investigate is to shake some into unflavored seltzer water, advised Rita Held, culinary ambassador for Angostura, a Trinidadian company in the bitters-making biz since the mid 1800s. Held, who hails from Red Bank, N.J., uses bitters to amp up everything from ketchup to baked beans to hummus.

"Bitters is that umami ingredient, like anchovy paste and soy sauce. The final product doesn't taste anything like the ingredient, but there's a background flavor that makes you say, 'What's in this?' " Cooks have been using bitters in food in the Caribbean for 200 years, she added. The flavors in Angostura - notes of clove, tamarind and cinnamon are readily apparent - would marry well with everything from chicken to apple pie.

"Once you start playing around, you'll find it's a game changer," she said. The Angostura website has recipes for appetizers, entrees and desserts, including fondue, chowder, grilled seafood and rice pudding. The aromatic properties of bitters enhance sauces and mayo-based dips, potato and chicken salads, white or cheese sauce, and marinades. Because bitters are a strong flavoring agent, start with just a dash or two, Held advised.

Food scientist James De Souza has applied his degree to cooking with Bar40 Bitters, a Canadian line of bitters that launched in 2014. Unlike other bitters, ingredients like citrus or fruit don't categorize Bar40. Instead, the line is divided into salt, sweet, sour and umami. "These represent four out of the five basic tastes that can be perceived by the tongue and all of them are bitter to some extent as well, which is why there's no 'bitter' bitters," De Souza explained. "I've been playing around with recipes for six months now," he said. "Cooking with bitters is all about achieving balance and harmony of flavors."