Bitterness is not a flavour but a true taste; that is, along with sourness, saltiness, sweetness, astringency, metallic tastes and pepperiness or pungency, it is detected in the mouth and not by the nose.
Of all tastes, bitterness can be detected in the smallest amount. It is also very often not liked, especially by children, and this is possibly due to the fact that many poisonous plants are intensely bitter. Perhaps our dislike is a primitive defence.
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Although bitterness can be somewhat masked (druggists use raspberry and cocoa), it cannot be counteracted by sugar or anything else in the same way as sourness. Some substances can be simultaneously sweet, sour and bitter. Bitterness increases the effect of sourness and is also more pronounced when dishes are cold than when they are hot. In this it is similar to saltiness but the opposite of sweetness and sourness. Unwanted bitterness can only be removed by extracting a part of the bitter principle by boiling and throwing away the water. This procedure is often resorted to, for instance, with bitter oranges used for marmalade or in cooking bitter greens.
The addition of any bitter-flavoured ingredient must be done with care, but when correctly adjusted bitterness makes food more interesting and sharpens the appetite. Bitter plants, such as dandelion and chicory, are often put into salads, although most of the bitter salad plants have had their bitterness much reduced by horticultural selection or blanching. Bitter oranges are interesting and are preferred to sweet by many, not only in marmalade but also in sauces. Many of our most refreshing fruits, such as the grapefruit and pomelo, are naturally slightly bitter, and sometimes the addition of a touch of bitters or bitter peel can improve fruits which are without natural bitterness. The main use of bitter substances, however, is in drinks, both in refreshing ones or in those intended to promote an appetite or encourage a failing liver. Hops in beer, quinine in Indian tonic water, bitters in gin, wormwood in vermouth, angostura bitters, amerpicon, fernet branca, literally hundreds of commercial aperitifs and bitters of different formulae in France and Italy and some quite devastatingly bitter gentian drinks such as suze and enzian. Commonly used bitter substances are gentian root, quassia chips, aloes, dandelion, and quinine. These are all intensely bitter. Of the more aromatic and pleasantly bitter ingredients available in the kitchen, one might list preparations such as angostura bitters and orange bitters together with bitter orange peel and hops. Perhaps one should add wormwood, which is easily grown in the garden and perfectly wholesome in small quantities. One or two of these may be kept handy in the kitchen for adding bitterness when necessary.