Counteracting the bitterness in greens

February is not really a great month for local fresh produce around here, but there is one category of vegetables that is quite abundant around this time - greens. There’s endive, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, chicory, and some less common greens like puntarelle. One problem with many winter or early-spring greens is that they have a bitter flavor.

There are various ways of reducing or counteracting the bitterness; the method you use depends on the kind of greens you are using and how concerned you are about retaining nutrients and such.

  • Blanching - put the greens in boiling water for a minute then drain and run under cold water. This works well for many greens but you may be concerned about nutrients going down the drain.
  • Adding sweetness, such as sugar or honey, during cooking. This method is used in American Southern cooking for collard greens, and in Japanese cooking as well for things like warabi (a kind of fern) shoots and fuki no toh (the stems of a plant called fuki). The disadvantage obviously is that you are adding sugar, plus this kind of method usually requires a long cooking time.
  • Counterbalancing the bitterness with aromatic vegetables like garlic. Sautéing greens in oil with lots of garlic and/or onions works well to counteract the bitterness of mildly bitter greens.
  • Counterbalancing with acid, salt and strong flavors. A bitter salad green like arugula (rocket, rucola) demands a rather strong tasting dressing.
  • Long, slow braising. If you braise bitter greens over low heat for a long time (see braised endives) the bitterness mellows.

In any case I hope you don’t reject some greens just because they are bitter. A little bit of bitterness really adds depth to the overall flavor, and define the character of certain vegetables. There’s a trend in the past few decades to hybridize fruits and vegetables to eliminate the more challenging flavors like sourness and bitterness, and that’s really a shame. We don’t really want produce that’s just sweet and bland…do we?

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My (English) boyfriend and I have had long loud arguments about endives vs chicory. I thought there was a US/UK difference involved but as I go through showing him different photographs of “Belgian Endive” and “Curly Chickory” and various other versions, he doesn’t seem to be able to define what the difference is between the two — he certainly seems to think what I buy as “endivias” here in Spain should be translated into (UK) English as “chickory”.

So I couldn’t help but notice that you listed both — do you have a clear view of what the difference is? Is there some sort of cultural confusion thing happening? When you search for images of chickory, does it bother you if they have endive as a keyword associated with it?

Do I worry too much about trivial issues? Yes. :)

  • Sylvia *
sylvia | 21 February, 2007 - 21:13

endives and chicory (chicoree)

Sylvia, I’ve seen the pale white bullet shaped vegetable sold as both Chicory or Chicorée and Belgian Endive (or the dutch name…witloof), and the pale green curly one sold as Endive and Frisée, depending on who is selling them. I think they are from the same family but with different shaped leaves. I sort of tend to think of the bullet shaped Belgian Endive as Endive, and the curly one as Frisée (the french name for them), but…I don’t get too concerned about it and just eat them :)

maki | 21 February, 2007 - 23:57

Re: Counteracting the bitterness in greens

How much of exact measurements of ingredients do I need to counteract 4 pounds of very bitter, bitter collard greens?
Makes me not want to try to cook them again. Too much work for the turn out of the collard greens.

anon. | 24 November, 2012 - 19:58

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