I love it when I can make punny titles. You just have to bear with me during this moments when I am completely amused by myself.
When you are a forager, bitter foods come up a lot. They are an almost forgotten aspect of our diet. My family became rather intimate with bitters when my brother developed gallbladder issues. He ended up in the hospital a few times but could not afford to have the treatment (typically removal of the gall bladder).
My mom has become a big advocate for not removing organs if possible. Both my parents had their gallbladders removed during a time when neither were familiar with holistic medicine nor did they have the access to information that we have now. Determined to save my brother’s gallbladder, she did a bunch of research. She discovered a process of “detoxing” the gallbladder using some weird processes and a bunch of bitter tonics with weird names.
My brother ended up saving his gallbladder and leaving the strange bottles at home. Then my husband developed problems. He inherited the bottles. With some experimentation, we found that just bitter tonics help. He didn’t need anything in particular. He used Swedish Bitters for a long time. While the bottle says not to use if you have any chronic issues, my husband found that a dose of bitters at the start of an attack stopped the attack. Since then he has learned what foods are apt to set off an attack and takes the bitters with the food.
Recently, we realized we had to replace the bitters. Because we are us, we thought we’d make our own. One of those best and worst things about making your own bitters is that there is so many recipes and so many choices for bitters.
The reality is that almost anything can be “bitter” – it’s a flavor that triggers a particular response in the body. The one that we were looking for is an increase in bile production to help with digestion. While my husband had been taking “shots” of bitters, we learned that a few drops on the tongue can have the same response. My husband is not sure he believes this so he puts a few drops on his tongue and sips his half shot (because we’re working on less more often instead of a lot once or twice).
Herbs that can be used as “bitters” : angelica root, artichoke leaf, barberry root, black walnut leaf, burdock root, calamus root, chamomile, cinchona bark, citrus peel, dandelion root and leaf, devil’s club root, gentian root, goldenseal, horehound, licorice root, milk thistle, mugwort, Oregon grape root, orris root, peppermint, quassia bark, rue, sarsaparilla, wild cherry bark, wormwood, yarrow
I’m sure that is not all but that was a pretty good list. Then there are flavoring agents you can use that also help with digestion such as ginger and fennel.
I took all the information and made a list of all the things I had in my house at that moment that I could use to make a recipe. What I had was chamomile, dandelion root, peppermint, yarrow, lavender, citrus peel and pith, oregon grape root, dried ginger root, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, coriander and star anise.
Then I found a recipe that only used what I had. The recipe I ended up using was an after dinner “treat” that used ingredients that were less tea-like than what I had. The idea was to give me a starting point.
To make the bitters the way we wanted, required that we steep the herbs in alcohol. However, you don’t get a chance to alter the flavor if it doesn’t work out. So we made a small batch of tea instead. In a tea cup, I added ginger root, fennel seed, dandelion root, and orange peel. My husband liked the blend as a tea so we went for a large jar using the alcohol.
The recipe we ended up with was 1 cup dandelion root, 2 tsp fennel seed (because that was all we had), 1/2 cup ginger root, 1/2 cup orange peel, 1 tsp cardamom seeds, and 2 cinnamon sticks. All that went into a half gallon jar and then topped with some really cheap rum. Personally, I thought the rum was the worst part.
We let that sit for a couple weeks. When we went to taste test it, the ginger was so strong that we decided it was probably time. It’s very potent but not unpleasant at all. I’d almost drink it as an after dinner aperitif. A little goes a very long way so we’re not talking a shot glass but a nice teaspoon after a meal would be very pleasant.
I should note we strained using a tea strainer so there is a little bit of sludge at the bottom but a not terribly offensive amount. I will say that the cost of this almost half gallon jar of bitters was about the same as a small bottle of store bought bitters. We buy the dandelion and ginger root by the pound and dry our own citrus peels. The spices are, also, bought by the pound. The biggest expense is the alcohol and that cost us about $16. If I took the time to figure out the cost, I’d say it was probably about $20. It gave us a half gallon. Swedish bitters would have cost us $20 for about 2 cups worth of bitters.
Also, I should note, we’ve been working to add bitter foods to our diet. Right now that is limited to spring greens but we will keep researching and experimenting. I will tell you this, my husband was so thrilled to be able to have corned beef last week without a single issue. There was a time that he was having attacks almost nightly. It’s something he has to stay on top of but he feels so much better these days and he’s not at risk of having his gallbladder removed.
1 cup dried dandelion root
2 tsp fennel seed (or more as desired)
1/2 cup ginger root
1/2 cup orange peel
1 tsp cardamom seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
Large bottle of rum
Add roots, peel, and spices to a half gallon glass jar. Fill with rum. Let sit 1-2 weeks, tasting every few days until the desired strength.