5 Ways to Use Cocktail Bitters in Your Kitchen

Borrow from your bar cart to whip up these sweet and savory recipes

barbecue chicken wings on parchment next to a bowl of barbecue sauce

Wings with cherry bitters barbecue sauce? Yes please.

By Jim Mumford

There’s a secret ingredient in your house that’s the key to next-level savory and sweet dishes alike, something we’ve almost all used but perhaps have never employed in the kitchen: cocktail bitters. Originating in the early 19th century, bitters were initially crafted for their medicinal properties, believed to aid digestion. Over time, they found their way into cocktail culture, enhancing drinks with depth and complexity. When deployed correctly, they can also coax out sweet and savory flavors from a myriad of food dishes, and the alcohol can extract and enhance certain fruit and chocolate notes within. Give them a go in one of these five recipes.

Fruit-based barbecue sauces are some of the most wonderful condiments for roasted or smoked chicken, fish and pork. The sweetness of the fruit, plus the tangy notes from the vinegar, perfectly complement the flavors in the meat. In this version, cherries are the star, and the addition of cherry bitters not only boosts the fruit flavor but marries with the umami and roasted character of the protein. Additionally, the slight floral notes pair nicely with the spices, adding depth to the overall flavor profile.

Cherry Bitters Barbecue Sauce

Servings: 3 cups

  • 2 cups fresh or frozen cherries, pitted and halved
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • .5 cup brown sugar
  • .25 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • .5 tsp. smoked paprika
  • .5 tsp. salt
  • .25 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. cocktail bitters
    1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine cherries, ketchup, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, salt and black pepper. Stir the mixture well and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cherries are soft and the sauce has thickened.

    2. Remove the saucepan from heat and let the mixture cool slightly. Use an immersion blender or transfer the mixture to a blender, and blend until smooth.

    3. Return the sauce to low heat, stir in the cocktail bitters and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Remove the sauce from heat and let it cool completely. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Maple and Orange Glazed Roasted Carrots
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The marriage of sweet maple syrup and savory roasted carrots, enhanced by the complexity of orange bitters, creates a side dish that’s both sophisticated and comforting. The orange flavor highlights the sweet notes from both the carrots and maple, creating a balanced harmony of flavors. Tip: pair these with the cherry BBQ sauce above. The array of sweet and savory flavors between the two dishes is unrivaled.

Maple and Orange Glazed Roasted Carrots

Servings: 4

  • 1 lb. baby carrots
  • 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • .5 tsp. orange cocktail bitters
  • .5 tsp. salt
    1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a bowl, toss the baby carrots with the olive oil, maple syrup, cocktail bitters and salt until evenly coated.

    2. Spread the carrots in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes or until the carrots are tender and caramelized, turning them halfway through.

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In this dish, the rich warmth of bourbon meets the sweet, fruity notes of cherry bitters, striking a flavor balance somewhere between dessert and a cocktail. The cherry bitters perfectly cut the sweet richness, allowing all of the flavors to shine. This dessert tastes wildly sophisticated, comes together quickly and is a go-to for any holiday party.

Bourbon Cherry Bitters Bread Pudding

Servings: 8

  • 6 cups cubed bread (preferably day-old)
  • 1 cup dried cherries
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • .25 cup bourbon
  • 1 Tbsp. cherry cocktail bitters
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • .5 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
    1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a baking dish.

    2. In a large bowl, combine the cubed bread and dried cherries. Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared baking dish.

    3. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, heavy cream, sugar, bourbon, cherry cocktail bitters, vanilla extract, ground cinnamon and a pinch of salt until well combined. Pour the wet mixture over the bread and cherries, ensuring everything is evenly coated. Allow it to sit for 15 to 20 minutes, letting the bread absorb the liquid.

    4. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until the pudding is set and the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

Walnut Banana Bread
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This delightful fusion of nuts and ripe bananas creates a moist, irresistible bread on its own, but the addition of bitters brings out the subtle flavors of the walnuts and adds a spicy undertone to the entire loaf. While unconventional, it’s perfect for an evening dessert or rich, satisfying breakfast.

Walnut Banana Bread

Servings: 1 loaf

  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1 Tbsp. cocktail bitters
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • .5 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of salt
    1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and flour a loaf pan. In a mixing bowl, combine mashed bananas, melted butter and cocktail bitters. Stir in the egg and vanilla extract.

    2. In a separate bowl, whisk together sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the dry mixture to the banana mixture and stir well. Gently fold in the chopped walnuts, then gradually add the flour, mixing until just incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.

    3. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool before slicing and serving.

This recipe was devised out of a combination of panic and necessity. Attempting to make my famous mint fudge brownies, I found myself without mint extract. In a Hail Mary, I substituted mint bitters and these brownies did not survive the night. Mint and chocolate are best friends as is, but the extra blend of flavors from the mint bitters brought out the best in both. If you’re short on time, prepare a boxed brownie mix per the instructions and spike with the bitters and chocolate chips before baking.

Mint Fudge Brownies

Servings: 16 brownies

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • .5 cup cocoa powder
  • .25 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbsp. mint cocktail bitters
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips
    1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C) and grease a 9×9″ baking pan. In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Remove from heat, cool slightly and whisk in sugar, eggs and vanilla until well combined.

    2. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder and salt. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture, stirring until just combined. Fold in mint cocktail bitters and chocolate chips.

    3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs. Allow the brownies to cool before cutting into squares.

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