Bitters: the word by itself does not invite. After all, the bitter flavor is one that speaks directly to the brain on a chemical level. A bitter flavor warns most mammals to beware as it crosses our tongue, as bitterness often signals toxicity.
But perhaps it is that thrill of potential danger that can also make it so alluring, a forbidden flavor plucked from fruits and seeds, a dare we dare to taste and taste again.
Yes, bitter is a misunderstood flavor, under appreciated, and rarely celebrated. But on closer reflection, it is apparent that we have a secret love affair with bitterness. Coffee, grapefruit, hops, and radicchio all come to mind.
Consider, too, the recent surge in popularity of IPA’s, a heavily hopped, i.e. bittered ale, whose predominant characteristic is, yes, bitter.
As a cocktail element, bitters are used sparingly, just a few drops in an entire glassful of powerful flavors. But make no mistake, their effect is disporportionate to the amount used. A Manhattan with just a few dashes of bitters can be a complex and satisfying drink, with notes of spice, aroma, and bitterness that cut through the layers of what might otherwise be a sweetly cloying and insipid mixture.
Bitters add depth and intrigue to a drink.
Historically, their usage goes far back into the 1600’s, although the manner in which they were used has evolved over the centuries. Because so many medicinal plants also contain bitter flavors, the earliest bitters were intended as medicine, containing as they did, infusions from many powerful herbs, roots, seeds, flowers, bark, and the like.
Snake oil salesmen of the 19th century sold bitters labeled with fantastic health claims, which, while certainly overblown, were nonetheless rooted in the history of the use of medicinal herbs as powerful medicine.
Over time, they were added to alcoholic drinks, perhaps to disguise or improve the questionable flavors of inferior alcohol, becoming more of a flavor element than an alleged health tonic.
Many a classic cocktail is bound together with a few splashes of bitters. A recent upswing in cocktail culture has bitters on every serious mixologist’s mind, and many bars now make one or even several house-made bitters blends.
Aside from their use as cocktail mixers, bitters can be used for other delicious purposes. Pour a little over vanilla ice cream, or add a splash to orange juice, or even water kefir. Or how about as a substitute for vanilla in whipped cream, or as a secret ingredient in a marinade for chicken or beef? Let your imagination guide you.
Generally, bitters include two classes of ingredients; those intended to create a purely bitter flavor, and those intended to add flavor and aroma to complement the chosen bittering agent; these make up the bulk of the recipe, ensuring that the bitter flavor does not dominate the other notes.
Here we offer a recipe for orange bitters, modified from the original version appearing in the (aptly titled, excellent) book by Brad Parsons, “Bitters”. It takes about 3 weeks to complete, so start soon if you want to make gifts for your holiday giving season. Be sure to save a splash or two for yourself… cheers!
Place all of the ingredients except the vodka, water, and rich syrup in a quart size mason jar. Pour in enough vodka to cover all ingredients. Seal the jar and store it at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.
After 2 weeks, strain the liquid into a new, clean quart jar, filtering through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Squeeze or press out any excess liquids into the jar; seal the jar by putting on the lid and set aside at room temp, to wait until the next steps have been completed.
Transfer the solids to a small saucepan, and cover them with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, and then cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow it to cool. Add the contents of the saucepan (solids and liquids) to another clean quart jar, and set it beside the jar containing the infused vodka. Let them both sit at room temp in a dark place for another week. Shake the jar containing the solids once a day.
After a week, strain the second jar (with the solids) through a lined funnel, into another clean mason jar. Repeat if necessary until all the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids.
Add the just-strained liquid to the jar containing the original vodka infusion.
Add the 2 TBS rich syrup to the solution; stir and shake until it is fully dissolved.
Allow this mixture to stand at room temperature for 3 days. At the end of 3 days, skim off any debris that may have floated to the surface, and pour the mixture through a lined funnel one more time, to remove any solids.
Using a funnel, decant the bitters into smaller bottles and label. These bitters will last indefinitely, but use within a year for optimum flavor and freshness.
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