Do you like dark or milk chocolate better?

If you prefer milk chocolate, you may perceive the taste of bitter more than other people.

Each person has unique taste experiences based on individual genetics. Some people taste the bitter in vegetables more than others.

I have been interested in how different basic tastes influence our perception of others for a couple decades. I learned most what I share here from Barbara Fromm and Sarah Washburn, two dietitians that were pioneers in exploring taste interactions.

Simple culinary techniques can help improve the taste of bitter foods, such as leafy greens.


Here is a simple taste experiment that demonstrates how a little sour (lemon juice) and a little salt can improve the flavor of a bitter vegetable. Plain radicchio, a red head lettuce often found in mixed greens, has a bitter flavor. For this simple taste activity, you will need
1 leaf of fresh radicchio
1 slice or wedge of lemon and

Shopping Tip – You can buy just a few leaves of radicchio from a head at the store. Or look for a mixed salad green kit with this red lettuce included.

  • Take the radicchio leaf and break it into three pieces. Taste a plain piece, paying attention to how much bitter you perceive.
  • Next, lightly rub the lemon slice/wedge on the two remaining pieces to give a slight lemon juice topping. Avoid having each piece dripping with lemon juice.
  • Taste a leaf with lemon juice and pay attention to how bitter this piece tastes compared to the plain piece tasted first. Adding lemon juice lessens the perception of the bitter flavor for most people.
  • Finally, sprinkle a few grains of salt on the lemon-juiced last piece, being careful not to overly coat the leave with salt. Again, pay attention to how much bitter you perceive compared to the first and second tastes of radicchio. The final taste with lemon juice and salt should suppress the perception of bitter flavor even more for most people.

The ability to taste bitter is genetic. Some people perceive the taste of bitter more than others do, even in the same family. By using other flavor ingredients, such as sour (vinegar, lemon or lime juice) and/or a little bit of salt, you can make the bitter fade and other flavors pop!

Create mouth-watering vegetable options with these culinary principles.

Use Sour and Salt in Combination

Basic vinaigrette dressing  – source American Test Kitchen (Fool Proof Vinegarette – 100 Recipes, page 18 – see cookbook for more variations and tips)

1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallot
1/2 teaspoon light mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon  salt
Ground or cracked pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1. Combine all ingredients except for the oil in a bowl. Whisk until smooth and mayonnaise is completely worked into the liquid. It should be a milky white glossy color.

2.Use a small measuring cup with spout to slowly drizzle the oil into the mixture and continuously whisk. The vinegarette should be glossy and thick with no pools of oil on the surface. If necessary, stop pouring oil and whisk until any pools disappear.

Makes 1/4 cup. Refrigerate covered for up to 2 weeks, rewhisking before use.


When a fresh vinegarette is added to mixed greens, the sour and salt (from mustard and salt) in the dressing helps suppress any bitter flavors in the greens.

Use Sour, with a little Fat and tiny bit of Salt

Broccoli is another food that many people find bitter. Research has shown that children who perceive bitter will eat more raw broccoli if a little Ranch Dressing is available. The study looked at both dipping broccoli and a raw chopped broccoli salad coated with Ranch dressing.

If you have ever sprinkled a little salt into a cup of coffee, now you know why it may help the coffee taste better. The same is true of cream and sugar, both are suppressing the bitter compounds in black coffee.

Use Culinary Salts

When reducing extra salt in recipes, the goal is to create great flavor. One way to maximize the flavor of foods focused on culinary salts – or foods that are part of recommended dietary patterns that impart a bit of salty flavor in culinary applications.

Examples include
A small amount of olives (Mediterranean diet) or
A sharp cheddar cheese (DASH diet)
sprinkled on the top of a dish where the flavors burst.

Temperature Matters

Bitter foods will taste may taste more bitter when cool, such as an IPA that is not longer icy cold but room temperature.

When you understand the basic interplay of different tastes, you can create wonderful, flavorful foods. This is especially helpful when trying to reduce salt in your diet. I like the DASH Diet because it helps lower blood pressure with a moderate reduction in sodium. To see a chart of how DASH lowers blood pressure at different sodium levels, see the chart in DASH Diet Recipe: Easy Avocado Beet Citrus Salad.

The DASH Diet allows for many of the culinary techniques I suggest, because it focuses on basic foods. So go ahead, sprinkle a little sharp cheddar cheese on the steamed broccoli.

Are you interested in other taste activities? Check out the interaction between salt and pepper in my Salt Taste Activity.

Bitter Taste Activity