Sam Unger likes to think of cocktail bitters as the Mary Poppins of flavor.
“When we’re making our Pineapple Star Anise [bitters], I’m taking hundreds of pineapples, bringing them into this tiny bottle, then all of a sudden it expands again and it’s able to go into hundreds of drinks,” says Unger, founder of Vancouver-based Ms. Better’s Bitters. She’s part of a cohort of artisans making supremely complex and food-friendly bitters, helping to bring these expansive tinctures—long relegated to the mixologist’s toolkit—out from behind the bar and into the kitchen.
When Unger demos her product to bartenders these days, the chefs stop what they’re doing and crowd around to watch. At Le Cordon Bleu in London, she’s seen cooks toss nuts destined for a cheese board in bitters before roasting them.
“I think [pairing] bitters and cheese is a pretty fantastic idea,” says Unger. “It creates dimensionality…they’re both going to feed into each other and illuminate each other.”
Like a celebrity couple that looks so obvious together you can’t imagine they were ever apart, cheese and bitters seem fated. Their complements and commonalities are everywhere, once you start looking—both are the result of inputs like wild herbs, ancient recipes, and time; both contain untold bounties of flavor in an unassuming package. Those small dropper bottles pack a spicy, herbaceous palate punch that’s practically tailor-made to cut cheese’s luxe, creamy base, and the balance they achieve together works at all hours (not just the happy ones).
According to Avery Glasser, proprietor of Manhattan bitters and amari bar Amor y Amargo and co-founder of Bittermens Bitters, it all comes down to the five tastes. “The primary flavors in cheese are umami and salty,” he says. “If you think of a bitter cocktail, that adds sweetness, bitterness, and sour… the right cheese can create this complete taste profile.”
But just like Brangelina and Bennifer, there are some high-drama no-fly zones to steer clear of when incorporating these lovers. Both Glasser and Unger advise against using glycerin-based bitters in food, and Glasser suggests playing it safe with uncooked dishes first (think glazes, frostings, whipped creams, ice creams, and salad dressings). “Don’t substitute brands without testing first, as one producer’s bitters may behave differently,” says Glasser. “[And] figure that you need two times the amount of bitters versus a primary extract like vanilla.” With all that in mind, you’re ready to start playing. Here are some of our favorite ways to combine this flavorful duo.
Olive Oil Cake with Orange Bitters Cream Cheese Frosting
Ben’s Cream Cheese + Regan’s Orange Bitters
All the bitters on this list can take your frosting game to the next level, but we especially love how the fatty tang of Ben’s Cream Cheese blends with the orange peel, caramel, and cardamom in a bottle of Regan’s. Spread on your favorite olive oil cake, or just eat with a spoon.
Sweet Potatoes with Orange Bitters (from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More)
Haystack Mountain Boulder Chèvre + Angostura bitters
The deep mystery of Angostura bitters com- bines with orange juice to turn simple roasted sweet potatoes into a dynamic (and spicy!) dish that’ll blow folks’ minds—especially if you swap it in for marsh- mallow casserole this year. Bright, lemony chèvre from Haystack Mountain brings the whole thing into almost absurd balance.
Peychaud’s Mascarpone Ice Cream
Vermont Creamery Mascarpone + Peychaud’s Bitters
Vermont Creamery’s rich mascarpone would liven up the simplest no-churn ice cream recipe, but why stop there? A few dashes of vibrant, anise-forward Peychaud’s will turn it a compelling pale pink that combines soda-fountain looks with New Orleans sophistication.
Chocolate Ricotta Cheesecake with Mole Bitters
Narragansett Creamery Renaissance Ricotta + Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Buy these bitters to make Manhattans that taste like Mexican cocoa; keep them around to spruce up a cheesecake starring Narragansett Creamery’s rich, decadent ricotta. (You can dash it in at the chocolate-melting stage.)
Triple Crème Brie with Bitters-Soaked Dried Fruit
Délice de Bourgogne + Ms. Better’s Kiwi Sumac Souring Bitters
Bring a new dimension to the classic cream and sweet combo by rehydrating dried fruit (think: prunes, apricots, raisins) with hot water and a few healthy dashes of this puckery tropical brew, then send the sweet-tart gems tumbling down the sides of an epic centerpiece triple cream.
Better with Cheddar
Cheddar aligns itself with bitters in so many dishes, we couldn’t pick just one. Read on for a few ways to try this complementary combo.
+ Cheddar-topped apple pie + Bitter Housewife Westward Hazelnut Bitters (add to unbaked fruit)
+ Mac and cheese + Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Bitters (add to bechamel)
+ Pickled vegetables + Scrappy’s Celery Bitters (add to brine)