Green bell peppers get a lot of hate, usually for their bitter taste and sometimes for their vegetal flavor too. Even famous foodies don’t like them.
Why green bell peppers are bitter
Green bell peppers are bitter because they are actually unripe bell peppers. When left on the plant, green bell peppers will turn yellow, orange, red, and even purple (depending on the variety).
As bell peppers ripen on the plant, the grassy flavor diminishes and the compounds responsible for the citrus-like flavors increase. This is why green bell peppers have that distinct vegetal, bitter flavor that the red, orange, and yellow varieties don’t.
You can use the bitterness to balance out rich dishes or try to minimize the bitterness with a few culinary tricks. I’ll cover both options.
Use bitterness to balance recipes
Rich foods can taste too fatty or one-dimensional if the don’t have a counterbalance. Acid is often paired with fatty dishes as it ‘cuts through’ the fat. Bitterness can also be used to balance fat.
The bitterness of green bell peppers is what makes them work on a cheesy pizza better than red bell peppers (unless you are a bitter super-taster, then you probably still don’t like them).
Fajitas benefit from both green and red/orange/yellow peppers. The green peppers counter fat from the meat, cheese, and avocado. Red pepper bring a bright citrus flavor, adding complexity to the dish.
Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole cuisine relies on The Holy Trinity of vegetables: onions, celery, and green bell peppers. This is the base of several famous dishes like crawfish étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans & rice. You’ll notice these are all rich dishes that make use of the bitterness for balance. If you replace the green bell peppers with another color, the dishes fall flat.
How to reduce bitterness
Sometimes the bitterness in green bell peppers can be overwhelming. Or maybe it doesn’t work with a specific recipe. There are some culinary tricks you can use to reduce bitterness and avoid throwing the peppers away.
Why cooked peppers are less bitter
Have you noticed that raw bell peppers taste significantly more bitter when eaten raw (for crudités or in a salad)? That’s because most bitter compounds in food break down with heat. The bitterness doesn’t go away completely, but it is lessened.
A few ways you can use this to your advantage:
- Sauté before using in fajitas, fried rice, etc.
- Baking stuffed peppers*
- Roasting or grilling**
*Stuffed peppers have a high bell pepper to stuffing ratio. This means there isn’t just a few pepper pieces scattered through a dish, but that every bite will have a lot of bell pepper in it. Or if you eat the stuffing first, then you’re stuck with eating a whole pepper at the end. If the bitterness really bothers you, this is probably not your best option.
**When roasting or grilling, be careful not to burn or char them when your goal is to reduce bitterness. Burnt and charred food can taste bitter. Also coating them in fat with plenty of salt will help reduce bitterness.
Why adding salt reduces bitterness
Salt reduces bitter flavors with the way it interacts with our tastebuds. Using green bell peppers in dishes that have higher amounts of salt will mask the bitterness more than recipes with reduced salt.
Why rich dishes are the best option
Dishes with a lot of fat, whether from heavy cream, cheese, or meat, will be your best option for taming bitterness. The reason is simple: they use every trick that reduces (and balances) bitterness.
One option is to look for Cajun and Creole dishes using The Holy Trinity (onions, celery, and green bell peppers). Red beans & rice, for example, has a lot of salt and cooks the peppers until soft. It also has enough fat that it uses any remaining bitterness to its advantage.
Another option is a curry made with coconut milk. It’s fatty and the dishes also tend to use a fair amount of salt. Some recipes don’t cook the peppers much before adding them in, so consider sauteing them before they are added.
Bitterness can be off the charts for super tasters
Have you been in this situation before? You taste something, anything, that’s so bitter you make a face and exclaim how bitter it is out loud. It could be a cocktail, specific dish, or just a raw green bell pepper! Your friends and family (whoever’s around you), looks at you with confusion. To them, it’s not bitter and they think you must be crazy, picky, exaggerating, or something in between.
There are two possibilities: you are a super taster (and they aren’t), or you can taste those specific bitter compounds (and they can’t). You can also be both of these.
About 25% of people are super tasters. This group of people have twice as many taste buds than the average person. Super tasters can have 10x or more taste buds as people with fall on the lower end of the taste-bud spectrum, it all depends on your genetics.
Tasting (& testing for) bitterness
Genetics also determine whether you can taste specific bitter compounds. For a fun party trick, buy test strips (like these) to determine who can taste bitterness, and who can’t.
When I did this at a dinner party, the results started to put a lot of things into perspective. My friend who absolutely loves bitter cocktails (the more bitter, he better), can barely taste bitterness at all. Meanwhile, one of these test strips left such a bitter taste in my mouth it took what felt like forever to wash it away.
Up next: bell pepper recipes
Over 50 recipes from 14 types of dishes, including stuffed bell peppers, pasta, soups, and stews. The “classic bell pepper” section includes recipes that try to make use of the bitterness of bell peppers. Whereas other recipes rely solely on the sweeter red, orange, and yellow varieties.
How to handle other bitter foods