With some culinary craftiness and a little bit of perseverance, you can teach yourself to genuinely like bitter foods. Here are a few strategies.
Channel your inner adventurous eater.
Research has found that being open to trying new foods can trump genetics — even if you’re hypersensitive to bitter foods.
Try, try again.
Repeated exposure is the number-one way to learn to enjoy bitter foods, according to Barb Stuckey, author of “Taste What You’re Missing.” Studies show that it takes around eight tries before your taste buds will come around. Plus, “the aversion to bitter foods goes away with age — we grow out of it,” says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. So keep at it!
Fatten it up.
“Think of black coffee. It’s very bitter — but add some cream and the fat will help mitigate that bitterness and improve the texture, so the overall flavor is better,” says Stuckey. It’s the same reason you’re told to massage kale with oil — the fat masks the bitterness, and massaging it helps break down some of the fibers in the leaves, making it more texturally pleasant. Suddenly something only a rabbit would touch tastes delicious.
There’s truth to that whole Mary Poppins “spoonful of sugar” thing. Prime example: The natural sugars in wine are what make it taste less bitter and unpleasant to us than, say, a raw cranberry (though they share the same bitter compounds). A little sprinkle of sugar on your grapefruit or honey in your tea — magic.
If you’ve ever tasted an olive straight off the tree, you know how shockingly bitter it is. But brine that olive in a salt solution and it becomes buttery, with just the right amount of snap. “Salt is the best way to mask bitterness,” notes Stuckey. Try a finishing salt, like Maldon, on bitter veggies — the larger flakes pop on your tongue, and there’s evidence that if you salt at the end of cooking you’ll taste the salt more and use less overall.
Ease back on the salt, sugar and fat.
“If you don’t like tea, for example, start with as much sugar and lemon as you need and then start backing off,” says Stuckey. “It will slowly change your perception of what bitter is — and shift your idea of ‘normal.’ One day, you’ll be able to eliminate them completely, because you’ll be so used to the flavor that it won’t taste so unfamiliar and astringent.”
(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)