If you've ever played around with cocktails, chances are you've dabbled in bitters, too. These herbal concoctions, made out of natural ingredients like herbs, bark, roots and fruit, are a key component in crafting a well-rounded cocktail. But did you know they're also embraced around the world as a cooking ingredient?

The five universally accepted tastes are sweet, salty, sour, umami (savory) and bitter. A well-executed and balanced meal often takes on multiple tastes, as they serve to enhance or offset others. For instance, consider how a sprinkle of sea salt on a chocolate chip cookie tickles your taste buds. Bitters can provide that kind of balance in meals, too.

The balancing act of bitters

collection of herbal bitters on bar counter The variety of small-batch and artisanal bitters has exploded in the past decade. (Photo: Achim Schleuning [CC by SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Brad Thomas Parsons writes in the definitive book on bitters, "Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All," "Bitters are essentially a liquid seasoning agent for drinks and even food, and their frequent description as a bartender's salt and pepper hits close to the mark." Though just the term "bitters" might scare you away from cooking with them, it can help to remember that they're really not that different from vanilla or almond extract, chemically speaking.

In fact, bitters might just balance your entire palate, in addition to your meals. In a blog for Huffington Post, Dr. Andrew Weil writes, "Along with sharply reducing sugar consumption, one of many other things you can do to improve your daily diet is indulge — or cultivate — a taste for bitter flavors." Besides assisting digestion, detoxing our livers and alleviating heartburn, bitter foods can help us curb our sugar cravings, too.

Perhaps you're already a fan of Brussels sprouts, radicchio and dandelion greens — in which case, go you! But if not, consider adding bitters to your cooking repertoire with these tips and recipes.

Better know your bitters

row of Angostura bitters lined up on table Angostura's iconic paper wrapper copy suggests adding a dash to fruits, salads, pies and soups. (Photo: Gryffindor [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

If you're a bitters newbie, get to know the two bitters brands that have been thriving for centuries: Angostura and Peychaud's. Both were created in the 1800s by enterprising men in warm, tropical climates — Venezuela and New Orleans, respectively. Now based in Trinidad and Tobago, Angostura thrived during the Golden Age of Cocktails, that is, until pesky Prohibition hit in 1920.

Laurel Miller writes in Taste Cooking, "It was by necessity that the company conceived of new ways to use Angostura beyond the bar and medicine cabinet, promising consumers it provided 'exquisite flavor' to everything from fruits and salads to fish." Angostura went so far as to produce promotional booklets with a wealth of food recipes, from mutton broth to stewed prunes to lamb kidneys turbigo, all to encourage cooking with the botanical bitters.

Peychaud's, the essential ingredient in a New Orleans Sazerac cocktail, is a lighter, sweeter, more floral bitter than Angostura, which makes for a superb creamy pink ice cream. While we're on the subject of desserts, consider this recipe straight from Angostura's 1935 booklet "For Home Use," which features a sweet potato crumble with whipped Angostura crème fraîche. These days, one Brooklyn pie shop uses bitters in their Salty Caramel Apple Pie to counteract the sometimes cloyingly sweet caramel.

Beyond sweets

a selection of botanical ingredients for bitters on board Bitters are a flavoring agent made by infusing some mixture of roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, herbs and botanicals in high-proof alcohol. (Photo: Foodista [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

Of course, bitters go beyond desserts. Parsons' book is rich with food recipes, including a bitters vinaigrette, ham glaze, ribs, wings and compound butters — just to name a few. This recipe for steak marinade adds that bitters "tenderize and add flavor to meat." Luckily, there's no exact formula for cooking with bitters, so have fun experimenting — in small dashes.

Kristen Miglore suggests in The Wall Street Journal to think of bitters when cooking as similar to anchovy paste or fish sauce. "Bitters can have a sort of subliminal effect," she writes, "Unlocking and amping up the flavors of everything else around them." Depending on when you add them during the cooking process, bitters can be as subtle or as strong as you want them to be. Miglore adds, "You can bring on the bitters at any point as you prepare a dish, depending on how strong a presence you’re looking for."

As you play around with bitters (both imbibing and eating), you might find your tummy's a little happier, and perhaps your sweet tooth is a little less demanding. In the wise words of Weil: "Health considerations aside, gaining an appreciation for bitters can open a new world of pleasurable tastes. A meal of only sweets is like nursery rhyme — the artful addition of 'counterpoint' bitters can elevate it to a symphony."

Lindsey Reynolds ( @https://twitter.com/LindseyKateR ) takes an epicurean and academic approach to foodways, but she also writes about so many other things, including art, psychology and how to live an environmentally responsible life.

How and why you should cook with bitters
While mandatory in drinks like the Sazerac and Manhattan, the aromatic, herbal flavoring agent isn't just for cocktails.