Our May limited-edition ice cream menu features a couple of flavors in both Portland and Los Angeles that highlight an unusual ingredient for ice cream….bitters! Bitters adds pizzazz to cocktails, but could it work in ice cream?
We turned to our pal, Mark Bitterman, for a little guidance and inspiration. Mark is a trusted collaborator of ours – he helped us create our Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons ice cream. Mark is the owner and “selmelier” at The Meadow, an internationally renowned salt shop and he actually wrote the book on salt, Salted, a James Beard award winning cookbook. Mark also recently wrote a book on bitters, Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amaro, a comprehensive guide to understanding and cooking with bitters. This book was the inspiration for our Rose Water & Apple Bitters ice cream in LA and our Woodland Bitters & Lovage Jello ice cream in Portland.
Mark was kind enough to write this blog post for us providing a crash course on bitters and why bitters and ice cream work together. Enjoy!
Bittered Ice cream
By Mark Bitterman
Bitter-tasting foods are dangerous. Ice cream is not. Bitterness in a food is potential warning sign that there is something toxic there, and that you might want to stay away. Ice cream just screams we all love ice cream. The combination of bitters and ice cream sets off something primal in our brains, a tussle between life and death, love and terror, affirmation and negation—like a honey gold sunrise against the granite razor of an impassable mountain. Whether you are making sodas or cocktails or soup or pancakes, when you bring bring bitterness in to the mix you are walking along this path between the sky and the abyss.
Bitters and amari are the only food group defined by bitterness. So what are bitters and amari? The unsexy definition is that they are alcohol-based flavor extracts with a bitter flavor at their base. You take a bunch of aromatic spices, herbs, barks, roots, stems, berries, petals, stamens, etc., and a dose of very bitter botanicals like wormwood or gentian root (there are hundreds, even thousands of bittering agents) and you put it all in a pot or jar or barrel of alcohol and let the sit. The ethanol in the alcohol draws out the aromatic and bitter flavors and presto, you get bitters. If you add a little sugar or honey to that, and a little water to lighten things up, you get an amaro (singular for amari). The difference between a bitters and an amaro is that you use bitters by the drop, typically in a cocktail, and you drink amaro by the glass, typically over ice or mixed liberally into a drink. Angostura is an example of a popular bitters. Fernet or Campari are examples of popular amari.
Photo by Clare Barboza
The origins of bitters go way back. Difficult as it is to imagine, they actually go back even farther than ice cream, which is rumored to have been invented by either the Chinese or the Persians, or maybe the Romans, about 2,000 years ago. Amaro, on the other hand, dates back to the first alcoholic beverages ever created, some 9,000 years ago, when Neolithic nomads brewed up some grapes, barley, honey, and hawthorn berries—an ancient and well-known medicinal berry. Which brings me to the other important thing about amari and bitters. They were first created as medicines. The bitterness, which can be toxic to people in large quantities, is lethal to microorganisms that cause disease. Bitters and amari have been used for millennia to treat black plague to heart problems to blood pressure to hepatitis. In modern times though, we look to bitters and amari for flavor. And that’s where ice cream comes in.
In my book, Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, I tasted over 600 varieties of bitters and Amari, some of them many, many times and many many ways. My mission was to help people get a better sense of their flavor, their variety, and their uses. I argue for modernizing cocktails by bringing more bitters into the mix, so booze shines bright and bold, without all the sugars and acids that people traditionally rely on for making a drink delicious. I argue something similar, though slightly different for food.
The best way to improve the flavor of food is to add salt. Other great ways to make things taste great is to add sweet, sour, or umami (savory) tastes. All of these give your mouth something to hold onto while your nose picks up all the infinite aromatic complexities of food. We don’t usually realize it, but about 90% of the flavor you are getting from food comes from the aroma picked up by the olfactory receptors in your nose. It’s hard to figure out on your own because your brain actually “composes” the experience of flavor by combining the information from the taste receptors on your tongue and the olfactory receptors in your nose to create a bigger picture, much like your brain takes the images from each of your eyeballs to create a three-dimensional image of the world around you.
This is the thrill of bitters and ice cream, for me. They wake you up to the thrill of being alive, and give you something delicious to lick at the same time. Two of my own favorite recipes from my book are Lemon-Cardamom Bittered Ice Cream Sandwiches, which I make for birthday parties and give out to kids who have no idea what hit them (there is no alcohol in the finished product, so fear not) and the Snowball in Hell, an amaro-enriched root beer float!
Photo by Clare Barboza
You may not have heard of bitters or amari, but once you start playing with them, they are indispensable. A bottle of bitters by the stove is a ready made dash of herbaceous bravado for whatever comes off the stove. A bottle in the liquor cabinet lets you deliver focus and punch to all your refreshments, alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike. I put it in salad dressings, soups, BBQ sauces, sodas, and negronis. A dash on ice cream, or in whipped cream, or in a chocolate sauce all you need is a small luxury we can all afford—a luxury with just enough bitterness to reminds us of the awesomeness of being alive.