Mark Bitterman, author of Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, says bitters are "the salt" of a cocktail, but you can also use them in cooking. He is the owner of The Meadow in Portland, Oregon, and New York City.

[More from Bitterman on salt and cooking with salt blocks.]

Melissa Clark: It used to be that there were one or two kinds of bitters in the supermarket. Now there's an explosion. What's with the bitters? Why are there so many available?

Mark Bitterman
Mark Bitterman

Mark Bitterman: I think it's really an offshoot of the craft cocktail movement. Probably the most vibrant thing happening in food today in America is cocktails. Bitters are a reflection of that. They're kind of the salt, if you will, of a cocktail. As cocktails have become more important, bitters have come back to the fore.

MC: What exactly are bitters?

MB: They're an alcohol-based flavor extract. You take any kind of botanical -- it could be anything from roots, barks and berries to leaves and stems -- and you macerate them in alcohol. You basically soak them in alcohol. That pulls out a bunch of the aromatic qualities of those botanicals.

Then you add some form of bittering agent. It could be gentian or wormwood, which is one that people have heard of. You give it a bitter core to its flavor.

That's all a bitters is. It's an alcohol-based flavor extract with a bitter foundation.

MC: Bitters aren't just bitter; they have other flavors.

MB: Absolutely. In the book, I created a taxonomy of the different types of flavors there are. The most common is aromatic, which is a complex bouquet of a lot of baking spice flavors. There's also citrus. Fruit is another option; you can just imagine anything from pear to cherry. Another is spice -- something that might have a really, really intense nutmeg, clove or cinnamon. There are spicy bitters, which have a lot of piquancy, a lot of capsaicin buzz, just like chili peppers. Then you have herbal floral bitters. The last would be nut, which would include maybe chocolate, coffee, walnut, almond, things like that.

MC: That's quite a range. You call your book Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari. What's the difference between a bitters and amaro?

MB: Amari is just the word amaro in plural. Bitters and amari are effectively the same thing. The difference is that bitters are designed to be put into drinks by the drop, and amari are designed to be drunk straight up or used as a mixer. Amari are basically more potable or more drinkable bitters. But historically they were the same thing.

MC: An example of bitters would be Angostura. What's an example of an amaro? Is Campari an amaro?

MB: Absolutely. Campari is an amaro. Another really well-known one might be Fernet. There are many, many, many hundreds of them all around the world, but those are probably two of the best-known ones.

MC: I was reading in your book that at one point there were no bitters; there were just amari. Then bitters kind of evolved from amari.

MB: Historically, they're really the same thing. Amaro is just the Italian word for bitters.

In America we had many, many, many kinds of bitters, which were these drinkable medicines. You'd take all these botanicals that had all these medicinal properties, people would make bitters out of them and drink them as medicine. That evolved to the point where there were thousands of these crazy patent medicines all over America.

Eventually, what happened was that the U.S. government said, "Hey, we've had it. We're going to have to establish some standards." It passed the [Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906]; it effectively said that you have to now list all the ingredients that are in bitters, and you have to make claims about what they can do that are legit. Almost overnight all the bitters makers went away.

With Prohibition some years later, things got even worse. The government said that now anything that is an alcoholic beverage is not allowed. All the bitters makers that had managed to survive the act of 1906 then pretty much went belly up.

One or two exceptions did make it. The most known of them is Angostura. They survived really because they are incredibly litigious, a hard-fighting, hard-hitting company that just wouldn't say no. They actually convinced the government that it couldn't be drunk, it was just useful as a flavoring, and maybe even for medicinal reasons. They were able to survive.

MC: Most people think bitters go in cocktails, but you also use them in cooking.

MB: I like to take shortcuts when I cook. I have two kids and I run a business; I don't want to always make everything as complicated as possible. I actually use bitters as a way to add flavor complexity into dishes that might otherwise lack it. I might just put a dash or two in a sauce. I'll put a grapefruit bitters, for example, maybe in a salad dressing. I'll put a fruitier bitters in a dessert, like whipped cream.

It's actually a wonderful way to add a little bit of complexity, some unusual different flavors. Sometimes it's fun to have this unexpected note of bitterness. Just like you eat radicchio, adding bitterness to your salad dressing adds a little bit of extra bitterness to it. It's delicious.

Mark Bitterman recommends 3 bitters

1. Aromatic bitters: Boker's

MB: Probably my favorite, most versatile bitters is an aromatic bitters. There are several families of bitters: aromatic, citrus and floral. Angostura is an example of aromatic bitters. But Angostura I find has really strong, pronounced flavors of clove and cinnamon. It's really a dominant note in drinks very quickly.

I personally prefer an aromatic bitters called Boker's. It's clean, bright and kind of a sharp, more well-defined aromatic bitters than Angostura. Both are fantastic, but that's my favorite. I recommend a Boker's bitters to everybody because you can make all your Old Fashioneds, your Manhattans and even add some to your Negroni.

2. Citrus bitters: Regan's Orange Bitters

Bitter Buttered Popcorn
Bitterman's recipe: Bitter Buttered Popcorn

MB: You have to have a citrus bitters. You can pick your poison, if you will. The most well-known variety out there is Gary Regan's -- it's called Regan's Orange Bitters. That's an awesome product, and it's not very expensive either. But any orange bitters that you can get your hands on, I would buy that. The good news is that most makers do a good job with the orange bitters.

3. Floral bitters: Lavender bitters

MB: I love to bring a floral dimension into cocktails. One of the things I think is very difficult to get away with in food is lavender. But in a cocktail, you can actually pull it off. I use a lavender bitters as a sneaky little note in some cocktails, not even announcing that it is there. In other cocktails I make it more of a centerpiece. I would recommend a lavender or other floral bitters.

Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.