Bitter Herbs

dandelion leaves
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Some of our wild foods have very strong flavors that most people with ‘soft palates’ are unaccustomed to.  Our domesticated vegetables have their roots in wild ancestors, but the intense, bitter flavors have been carefully bred out of them, yielding mild, sweet-tasting vegetables.

“Bitter” is an unwelcome quality in today’s cuisine, as most people much prefer sweet or salty foods.  In fact, most people are addicted to sugar from a young age and cannot tolerate the taste of bitter at all.  If you are trying to introduce someone to the virtues of wild foods, the bitter herbs will be a hard sell indeed.  Appreciation for the quality of bitterness is an acquired taste and the sign of a ‘mature palate’ in some circles.

Sweet, Sour, Salty and Bitter

We tend to think of the four food groups being meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables, and grains, but some herbal traditions categorize foods in a different way: by taste.  The four major taste groups are sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  In these traditions a ‘balanced diet’ would consist of a sampling of each of these.  In a typical diet today we see a huge emphasis on sweet and salty, some tolerance for sour, but virtually no bitter.  In fact, food scientists are working hard at developing ways to eliminate bitter tastes entirely!

So Why Bitter?

question mark
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The question to be asked is “Why are some of the most densely nutritious edible herbs so bitter?  What law of nature is this?”
Answer:  The body needs the taste of bitter to stimulate various metabolic processes associated with the liver and digestion.

The Medicinal Action of Bitter Herbs

In herbal medicine there is actually a class of herbs called ‘bitters’.  Here are some of the actions of bitter herbs on the body:

  • Bitters stimulate the appetite by triggering receptor sites on the tongue, which are taste buds that are designed especially to receive bitter flavors.
  • Bitters stimulate the gastric mucosa (stomach lining) to secrete the digestive juices needed to digest food properly.
  • Bitters strengthen poor digestion, which in turn helps the body better assimilate vitamins and minerals.
  •  Bitters help the body to assimilate fats by stimulating a release of bile into the intestines.
  • Bitters stimulate the activity of the liver, which is a very important organ for detoxifying and filtering harmful substances from the body.
  •  Bitters regulate the secretion of insulin and glycogen by the pancreas, and therefore can be helpful in managing hypoglycemia and diabetes.
  • Bitters stimulate repair of the stomach lining so can be useful in reversing ulcers.
Garlic Mustard
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An ancient herbalist named Paracelsus created a bitters formula that was later patented by a Swedish scientist, known today as Swedish Bitters.  This is a very popular remedy, particularly in Europe, and there are many amazing testimonies to its contributions to healing all kinds of ailments.

Cooking with Bitter Herbs

Even though bitter flavors are actually good for you, getting your family to eat bitter foods can be a challenge.  Some people have a much lower tolerance for bitter than others, especially those with an overdeveloped sweet tooth.
A lot of our medicinal herbs have a strong bitter component and many people may be willing to accept a momentary shot of bitter as a medicine, but very few will eat and enjoy bitter food.  In fact in the Bible, the children of Israel were instructed to eat bitter herbs at their annual Passover memorial as a reminder of their sufferings and bondage in Egypt!

Wild greens have a wide range of bitterness, from very mild to pleasantly bitter to extremely intense.  The young, fresh growth tends to be milder than older, larger leaves, so harvesting early in the season is recommended.  It is also possible to add small amounts of bitter greens to salads and soups without their being noticed.Dandelions and Leeks cooking

The most common method of ‘de-bittering’ greens is by cooking them in several changes of water.

     1.  Put greens in a pot and cover with water.
    2.  Bring to a boil, turn down heat and gently simmer for about 5 minutes.
    3.  Strain off liquid and cover with fresh water.
    4.  Bring to a boil again, simmer 2 or 3 more minutes.
    5.  Pour off liquid and taste the greens.
    6.  If the greens are still too bitter to serve, repeat the steps again until palatable.

Most bitter herbs need only 2 or 3 changes of water to be palatable.  The downside to this method is that the water soluble vitamins go down the drain with the water, but there are plenty of stable vitamins, especially minerals, that won’t be lost, so it’s still worth the compromise.   Dandelion greens can be eaten any time of the year with this method!

Some common, bitter wild greens include Dandelion, Watercress, & Garlic Mustard.  Many wild greens are very mild and need no special treatment.