How to Make Bitters : For Health and Cocktails
Bitters! What are bitters? At the most basic level, bitter is a flavor. Many foods made from fresh, whole ingredients have a bitter element to balance the sweet, salty, and sour. Think about the taste of a cucumber, fresh off the vine…Sweet, but with bitter undertones. Or, consider coleslaw; the cabbage itself has a bitter undertone, as well as being sweet. The mayonnaise adds salty and sweet. The raw onion or celery seeds and the cabbage add subtle bitter flavors. All together it becomes a complex taste experience, telling your body there are a multitude of nutrients coming down the pipeline!
“Bitters” can also mean liquor (or other liquids—see below) infused with plant material to create a concentrated bitter flavor. Bitters are often used as an ingredient in cocktails or for health purposes. We’ll get to the cocktails in a moment, but first: how are bitters important to health?
Basically, bitter flavors activate the digestive system. They stimulate all of the different secretions that break down food (such as saliva, stomach acid, bile, enzymes, and “digestive juices”). By ingesting bitters you are “warming up” your gastrointestinal “engine” and making the digestive process more efficient—vitamins and trace minerals are more readily absorbed, carbohydrates and fats are more easily digested, and some common digestive issues can be minimized (indigestion, gas and bloating, stagnation, etc.). If you want to learn more, here are some excellent resources with a lot more information about the health benefits of using bitters: Weston Price: Bitters and
Now that you know WHY bitters are useful, let’s talk about HOW to make them! Here are detailed instructions for making bitters, and further below you will find two recipes for inspiration.
First, you’ll need to gather your supplies:
-Container: Use a glass (or ceramic) jar, not metal or plastic—they can leach unwanted chemicals into your bitters. When you cover the jar, put a layer of wax paper or parchment paper under the lid to prevent the bitters from reacting with the metal or plastic of the lid.
-Liquid or “menstruum”: Typically bitters are made with alcohol as the liquid. I like to use a high proof (80 to 100 proof), quality vodka. Brandy also imparts a very nice flavor. Really, any type of alcohol will work, just stick to the 80 to 100 proof range.
- Alternatives to alcohol: Vinegar is a fine substitute, although it doesn’t have the same preservative qualities as alcohol. If you wish to use vinegar, I recommend raw apple cider vinegar (which is good for your stomach on its own!). Do everything as if you were using alcohol, but know that your bitters may eventually grow a vinegar “mother” (it won’t hurt you, just strain it off if you don’t like the texture). Also, the shelf life is shorter than an alcohol-based tincture; approximately a year-ish at room temperature, or you can store it in a refrigerator indefinitely. You can also experiment with vegetable glycerine, although the sweetness of the glycerine will disguise some of the bitterness. Another way to get bitters into your diet is to brew a quart of tea with bitter ingredients and store it in the fridge for up to a week. Drink a little bit before each meal for the bitter flavor.
—Plant Material/Other Ingredients: Try to use the best quality ingredients that you can find and afford—the healthier the plants, the better the medicine! Chop each ingredient into small pieces—the more surface area, the more extraction. In general, If you are using fresh ingredients (especially leaves and flowers) fill the jar loosely to about 2/3s full with plant material. If you are using dried ingredients, or fresh roots, use less plant material—fill the jar to about 1/4 to 1/2 full.
Here are some ideas of sources and ingredients:
Your kitchen! Chocolate, coffee, black tea, citrus peel, mate, spices and herbs (cloves, nutmeg, ginger, fennel seed, rosemary, thyme, anise, coriander, peppermint, cardamom).
Health food stores (or stores with a bulk herb section). Roasted dandelion and chicory roots, gentian, angelica, hops, yarrow, barberry.
On a wild edible plant walk (yay, fun!). Dandelion, chicory, bitter dock, barberry, yarrow, burdock, marigold, thistle, and many edible greens and flowers!
In the tea section: dandelion-based coffee substitutes, chamomile, fennel, lemon balm, ginger.
Herb suppliers such as local farms and farmers markets or online https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/
Now, that you have your equipment and materials, here is how to put them all together:
1. Put plant material into the container.
2. Pour the “menstruum” or alcohol of choice over the plant material, to the top of the jar. It is important that all the of the plant material is submerged in the alcohol so bits and pieces don’t mold (unlikely, but possible if plant material is exposed to the air).
3. Cover the glass jar.
4. Label your creation with the date and ingredients. Don’t skip this step : )
5. Put the jar in a cupboard where it is shielded from direct sun but where you won’t forget about it.
6. Shake it every day for the first week (in case plant material floats to the surface).
7. Start tasting it after about a week so you can track how the flavors change over time. Generally I let my bitters infuse for 2-6 weeks—at some point during that timeframe I decide I like the flavor and then I…
8. Strain out the plant material using a cheesecloth (or a clean bandana). Make sure to squeeze the cheesecloth and get as much liquid out as you can!
9. Bottle the bitters—they can go back in a jar or into a dropper bottle. Make sure you transfer your label to the new container!
10. Enjoy your bitters!
-A few drops straight onto the tongue 20 minutes before a meal.
-In soda water for a refreshing drink.
-Added to soups or beans or salad dressings for flavor (just a little!).
-On vanilla ice cream (I haven’t tried this one yet).
-A few drops when a sugar craving strikes—redirect the tastebuds : )
-In cocktails (see below).
Bitters in cocktails: There are many cocktail recipes that call for store-bought bitters to add depth of flavor. Now you can make your own, custom blended bitters for mixing drinks! Here is a list of drink recipes that use bitters as an ingredient. Have Fun!
Cocktail recipes with bitters!
Basic Orange Bitters Recipe:
Combine the following in a 1/2 pint (one cup) glass jar:
1-3* Tbsp dried or fresh Dandelion Root (roasted or not)
1-3* Tbsp dried of fresh Chicory Root (roasted or not)
*If using fresh root, err on the larger amount, if using dried roots, err on the smaller side.
Add the 1/2 the peel (pith and all) of one orange, ripped or chopped into smaller pieces
Optional flavors: Add 3-6 cardamom seed pods, or some chopped ginger, or some fennel seeds
Winter Circulation Chai Bitters
1-2 Tbsp Roasted Dandelion
1-2 Tbsp Roasted Chicory Root
1 Tbsp each of Fresh Dandelion root, Ginger root, and Bitter Dock root
3 Tbsp dried golden Ginko leaves
1 “Shy” Tbsp fennel seeds
3 Star Anise seed pods
2-3 Tbsp Raw Cacao nibs
6 Black pepper corns
6 (more or less to taste) Dried Cardamom seeds pods
3 Fresh Marigolds—optional, for beauty!
If you are excited to formulate your own recipes here are some thoughts:
–Use caution when mixing herb’s with strong “actions” or if you have specific health issues;herbal medicine can be very potent and can interfere with other medicines’s efficacy.
–Also be careful if you (or the person consuming the bitters) is pregnant or nursing—some herbs should not be consumed by expecting mothers or while nursing.
–When combining ingredients, go for 10% — 50% bitter ingredients (adjusting for strength and taste preference) and the rest flavoring ingredients.
–If you want a very specific flavor, try infusing jars of individual ingredients—aka “simples.” For example, infuse just dandelion, or just orange peel, and then after they are done infusing, strain them and mix in the proportions that give you the flavor you want. This method gives you more versatility—you could infuse a selection of simples, then create several different flavors of bitters by making different combinations of the simples.
If you don’t have time to make bitters right now, but you want to begin incorporating them into your diet, I recommend checking out https://www.urbanmoonshine.com/. They make delicious bitters!
Some people say that our sense of taste and appreciation of bitter flavors are like muscles—they can be developed with exercise. If you don’t like bitter foods, start with introducing just a little more bitter into your diet at a time. You may find that you start to enjoy the stimulating flavor. I hope you enjoy experimenting and concocting wild and beautiful bitters as much as I do!