You may have been browsing that fancy-schmancy liquor shop in the hipster part of town and seen a bottle of bitters on display and thought: What the heck do I do with this? These days, bitters are most well-known in craft-cocktail circles as a flavoring agent for specialty mixed drinks, but they also have a long history of medicinal use as digestive aids. Incorporating bitters into drinks and recipes or even taking them alone can boost your health and add intrigue to your meals, so I say let them do double-duty.
Bitters are simple infusions of bitter-tasting herbs, fruits and spices in alcohol. In many cultural and medicinal traditions, the bitter flavor is associated with the digestive system. Prior to industrialization, humans survived by eating massive quantities of bitter plants, rarely indulging in sweet treats. We’ve turned that around in our modern world almost entirely, and for our health, it’s important to reintroduce bitter foods to our diet to support digestive function—especially when it comes to eating more compromising, processed foods. Bitters provides balance to all those sweets.
While you could drop some cash on an expensive bottle of brand-name bitters, they are super-simple to make yourself. So let your creative (and culinary) juices flow by following these simple steps.
1. Select Your Ingredients and Materials
Your bitters brew will require three main ingredients: bitter herbs, aromatic/flavoring herbs and high-proof liquor. Whenever you can, choose organic ingredients.
Bitter-tasting herbs obviously will be at the base of your bitters blend. They work on the digestive tract by stimulating saliva and other digestive juices as soon as the flavor hits your tongue. From a cocktail or culinary standpoint they round out the flavor profile of your drink or sauce. Include one or more of these herbs as the base of your blend. Each has its own medicinal properties, so if using primarily for health purposes, do extra research on the benefits they can offer:
- angelica root
- artichoke leaf
- barberry root
- black walnut leaf
- burdock root
- citrus peel
- dandelion root and leaf
- wild cherry bark
To balance the bitters, you’ll want to layer in aromatic and flavoring agents. These can include any herb, spice, flower, fruit or nut, so use your imagination and listen to your body to find what smells and tastes good to you. Some common herbs and spices to sample from include:
- celery seed
- juniper berry
- star anise
- fresh or dried citrus peel
- dried fruit (apples, cherries, figs)
- toasted almonds
- cacao beans
- cocoa nibs
- licorice root
- vanilla beans
You’ll steep your herbs in a liquor at least 100 proof (or 50-percent alcohol by volume). The most neutral liquors is a grain alcohol, such as Everclear, or vodka. Smirnoff and Absolut are accessible, affordable brands at 100 proof.
In addition to these ingredients, you’ll need simple kitchen equipment that you probably already have: a cutting board, knife, strainer, funnel and small mason jars.
2. Make Your Infusions
Infusing herbal material into alcohol is called a tincture, and that’s what you’ll be making here. The simplest ratio for making a tincture is 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried plant material per 4 ounces of liquor. You’ll want to make a few different kinds to start so you have plenty of chances to experiment with flavor combinations.
Place each of your chosen herbs in separate jars. Coarsely chop the whole ingredients to expose more surface area for infusing. (This will also make straining easier at the end.) Cover the herbs completely with liquor, and screw the lids tightly on the jars. Don’t forget to label it so you know what you are infusing. (Trust me, you don’t want to be playing guessing games later.) Store in a cool, dry place.
This is the hardest part because, of course, you wanted these bitters yesterday. Your tinctures need to infuse for at least one day, but allowing them to sit for several weeks will enhance the flavor. Shake the jars once a day to encourage the mingling of flavor. During this time, smell and sample your tinctures. They’ll be ready when you can strongly taste the herbal ingredients.
4. Strain and Blend
When you’re satisfied with the flavors of your concoctions, strain the liquid, compost the spent herbal material, and prepare yourself for the fun part: blending!
This is where your creativity and culinary sense come into play. Using a dropper or syringe, blend your desired tinctures together in a small glass jar or bottle. Taste-test as you go, so you’re sure the final product is perfect. (But eat some snacks, too—remember, this is high-proof liquor you’re working with.) You can dilute with distilled water if the flavors are overpowering.
Take notes as you experiment. Jot down when something works—and when it doesn’t. This way you’ll be able to replicate good recipes and avoid the bad ones.
5. Bottle It Up
No need to vacuum-seal the jars—the alcohol keeps the botanical materials stable, and the tinctures can last for years. Store in a dark, cool place near your cocktail supplies or where you’ll remember to take a dropperful before meals. Bitters also make great gifts for your foodie or health-conscious friends. So get infusing!
About the Author: Rachel Kaplan is an urban homesteader, somatic psychotherapist and permaculture educator who lives and works in northern California. She’s the author of Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living.