Friday, June 25, 2010

What makes some vegetables bitter?

I recently spoke with a medical doctor who said that most Americans' diets are sorely lacking in the needed vitamins and minerals found in fresh vegetables... probably because most Americans don't like them enough to prioritize the time to buy, grow, or prepare them. He suggested that most people don't like them because they're bitter sometimes. This got me thinking about the question: What makes some vegetables bitter sometimes?

I mean, there's nothing worse than a head of bitter broccoli. The taste lingers in the back of your mouth like a toxic fume. I'm making a bad face just thinking about it. On the other hand, most broccoli is pleasantly mild with a slightly sweet earthen green flavor. Oh, it's so good lightly steamed on a baked potato with sea salt, pepper, and sour cream. Or lightly sauted in stir-fry. Bright green excellence!

Until today, I never knew that there could be so many reasons as to why some vegetables are bitter. I researched and came up with this list... and what you can do about it:

1. Pesticides taste bitter. Wash well. Use a natural vegetable wash, submerge in water, gently agitate delicate vegetables or scrub hearty vegetables. Recipe for natural vegetable wash is 1 c. apple cider vinegar, 1 c. lemon juice, and 1 c. water. Mix it up in a spray bottle. Or buy organic.

2. Anti-oxident nutrients are naturally bitter. Lightly steam vegetables to subdue bitterness.

3. When cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower) are overcooked, they produce a sulphur compound and emit a rotten egg smell. Go easy. Blanch, steam, or lightly saute vegetables right before serving time.

4. When vegetables are old, they get bitter. Conversely, baby vegetables (like baby spinach and baby carrots) are less bitter, but they are also less mature and therefore so is their nutritional content. Buy fresh and buy local.

SIDE NOTE: "Baby cut carrots" in the supermarkets are actually not babies. They come from specially bred fast-growing full-grown carrots which are cut up into 2 inch sections, peeled by a machine, washed (usually using chlorine), and bagged. They typically contain 30% less beta carotene of a normal carrot because they were in the ground for a shorter period of time.
But I still think they are a great example of healthy fast food. I personally always buy the regular big organic carrots and either scrub or peel them, and soak them in water until ready to eat. It only takes a few seconds.

5. Some vegetables are meant to be somewhat bitter (collard greens, swiss chard, kale) and they are very good for you. This taste compliments stews, soups, and savory sauces. The other day, I tried tossing a little bit of agave nectar into my kids' steamed kale, and they loved it.

6. Although I am not an avid gardener (that's my husband's department), I read that any stress on a vegetable such as high temperature, low moisture, low fertility, or foliage disease can cause bitterness. My Amish friend told me that cross-pollination and the acid level of the soil can also cause bitterness. Root vegetables which get exposed to light can turn green and taste bitter. Keep carrots and potatos in the dark before and after harvest.

7. There are people who are genetically extremely sensitive to bitterness. They are called "super-tasters" and about 25% of the population fits this category. Here is a list of sweeter vegetables: sweet potatos, squash, carrots, beets, peas, corn, sauted onion and garlic, local tomatos, avocado, cucumber, fennel, romaine lettuce, head lettuce, and baby lettuce.

8. Some nutritional bitter compounds in vegetables are lipophylic, meaning they dissolve readily in fat. Try a little butter or cream sauce. Salt blocks bitter and acts as a filter to let more desirable flavors come through.

Buy fresh! Buy Local! Enjoy the harvest!

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