Making Dandelions Edible and Why They Are Mostly Bitter

We’ve all come across tales praising the virtues of dandelions. Enthusiastic advocates of foraging often claim, “Just locate young dandelion leaves in early spring, prior to the emergence of flower stalks. If you do this correctly, bitterness won’t be an issue. Instead, you’ll savor the most delectable and nutritious fresh greens you’ve ever tasted.”

However, my personal encounters with the plant did not align with these glowing recommendations. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing a crucial step. Why is it that the accounts of this plant being irresistibly tasty and non-bitter don’t match my own experiences, even when harvesting it in its youth?

Embracing the bitter or not?

Allow me to provide a comprehensive exploration of the reasons behind the perceived bitterness of dandelions in their raw form and the transformative processes that turn these allegedly bitter greens into a genuinely delightful culinary experience, a phenomenon frequently lauded. Throughout this discussion, we will debunk longstanding myths and folklore, offering practical insights to maximize the potential of this abundant food source.

In the early stages of my foray into primitive living skills, the allure of surviving solely on nature’s offerings intrigued me. Among the various plants discussed in my collection of survival literature, dandelions stood out—they were familiar and literally underfoot. As a young, adventurous individual, I couldn’t resist the temptation to try them. Unfortunately, my initial experience was far from pleasant, marked by an overwhelming bitterness that diverted my interest towards alternative survival skills, giving my taste buds time to recover.

During my time at home, my mother, inspired by ancestral traditions, occasionally prepared dandelions gathered from a nearby vacant lot. However, the results were far from the idyllic tales of enjoying these greens. Despite the shared agony around the dinner table, my parents, aiming to be role models, concealed their discomfort, trying to convince us that these greens were indeed enjoyable. The psychological underpinnings of this experience remain a mystery to me to this day.

As I progressed through my college years, my exploration of wild foods evolved beyond mere identification of edibility to the nuanced art of preparation. Many aspiring primitive technologists bypass this critical step, seeking quick information on edibility without delving into the details. Understanding the intricacies of preparation, I discovered, is pivotal to success and the enjoyment of wild edibles.

The recommended method for preparing dandelions, as per the literature, involves boiling the leaves in one or more changes of water. Authors varied on the number of boilings, with most suggesting two. Executed properly, this process is said to eliminate bitterness, leaving behind the rich flavor of dandelion greens. However, overboiling can lead to disintegration.

Yet, contradictory information surfaced. Despite claims that dandelions are not bitter if picked early in spring, my repeated tests proved otherwise. Even the smallest leaves were excessively bitter in their raw form. Picking them early presents challenges, as the flower stalks emerge almost simultaneously with the leaves. Early dandelions, fueled by nutrient-rich taproots, render the emerging leaves unnecessary for supporting the growing flower stalk.

Even young dandelions growing directly from seed exhibited bitterness. Their lower stalks, solely fueled by leaf-generated food, developed later in spring.

young dandilions
Young dandelions

Approximately three decades ago, while assisting a friend pursuing a Ph.D., I conducted a survey-driven research project on senior citizens in a rural farming community. Many had grown up in an era where common amenities were a luxury. Dandelions were a dietary staple, providing diversity to their diets. Surprisingly, when questioned about bitterness, most respondents claimed dandelions were not bitter. The puzzle unraveled when I delved into their preparation method.

Their secret? “Take a bunch of fresh dandelion greens, cook some bacon, pour the hot grease over the greens, chop up the bacon, sprinkle it over the greens, cook a couple of hard-boiled eggs, chop them up, add salt and occasionally vinegar—there you have it, dandelion salad (also known as wilted greens).”

This revelation clarified that experienced dandelion eaters evaluate flavor within the context of preparation, not the fresh plant straight from the ground. Hardly anyone consumes dandelions in their raw state.

Psychological factors contribute to the perception of raw greens as bitter. Those who enjoy the “prepared” dandelions they’ve eaten for years tend to sing their praises, influencing others. Inexperienced individuals, tasting fresh dandelion leaves for the first time and disliking them, often assume they are not picking them early enough or are doing something wrong.

Additionally, the belief that bitterness is beneficial for the liver and digestion, coupled with the perception of dandelions as a healing food, leads some to tolerate and even enjoy bitterness. Their description of dandelions as not being bitter means that, to them, the bitterness is bearable and enjoyable.

Having shared my observations and experiences, let’s delve into the fundamental principles I’ve developed to help you savor dandelion greens.

By thoroughly exploring these aspects, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of the complexities surrounding the taste and preparation of dandelions, with the goal of fostering a newfound appreciation for this abundant and potentially nutritious food source.

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Understanding the bitter

Dandelions possess a bitter taste attributed to water-soluble chemicals known as sesquiterpenes. The key to savoring dandelions lies in comprehending how to navigate these chemicals to mitigate their impact on your taste buds.

Sesquiterpenes are pervasive in the milky juice that circulates throughout the dandelion plant, excluding the non-green flower parts. While rapidly growing leaves contain lower concentrations of sesquiterpenes, they are still bitter, albeit less so than they could be.

Several theories shed light on factors that intensify the bitterness of dandelions. First, as spring rains subside, the ground begins to dry, slowing leaf growth and concentrating bitterness. Conversely, areas kept relatively wet facilitate year-round rapid growth of dandelions, resulting in less bitter leaves.

Second, direct sunlight plays a role in sesquiterpene development, even in fast-growing leaves. Plants in shaded or grassy areas tend to be less bitter. The lower arc of the early spring sun, compared to the higher summer sun, contributes to less bitterness in shaded summer leaves. In moist, rich, shaded soil, I’ve discovered optimal fresh dandelion leaves year-round. Note that they still carry bitterness, though not overwhelmingly so for most individuals.

Individuals vary significantly in their perception of bitterness. “Supertasters” like myself, endowed with an abundance of taste buds in the bitter-sensitive zones of the tongue, can detect bitter flavors readily. For us, the bitter taste lingers uncomfortably even after swallowing. On the other hand, some individuals have minimal bitter taste buds, leading them to look at us in disbelief as we grimace over bitter greens like infants.

Dealing with the bitter

Drawing from my extensive experience in preparing dandelions and the limited knowledge I possess about taste science, I’ve formulated conclusions to enhance the flavor of dandelion greens while mitigating the bitter sensation.

Dilution: Mixing dandelions with ingredients that dilute their bitterness is a key strategy. This can involve blending them with milder greens like miner’s lettuce or chickweed or incorporating them into dishes with various ingredients. For instance, chopping fresh dandelions into small pieces and sprinkling them over a mixed salad effectively reduces their bitterness while enhancing the overall flavor. The crucial aspect is to keep dandelions less than one-fifth of the total salad mass and ensure the pieces are small enough not to overwhelm the taste buds.

Masking: Employing fat as a taste bud shield is an effective technique. Traditional practices, such as pouring bacon grease over dandelions, highlight the role of fat. Fat, in the form of oils, butter, or bacon grease, covers taste bud receptors, reducing sensitivity to the harshest forms of bitterness. Additionally, fat enhances the overall flavor of the greens.

Distracting: Adding impactful flavors like sugar, vinegar, or other elements to a salad creates competing taste sensations, diverting attention from the bitter one. This effectively diminishes the prominence of bitterness, sometimes masking it entirely amid the other flavors.

Leaching: The process of boiling out water-soluble sesquiterpenes, as mentioned earlier, leaves behind a rich flavor. When using fresh, rapidly growing greens, a single boil for three to five minutes is usually sufficient to release most of their bitterness. The leaching technique involves starting a pot of rapidly boiling water, chopping the greens into one-inch pieces, placing them in the water, and stirring to keep them submerged. After 3 minutes, sample a small piece. If not bitter, remove the greens from the water and serve hot. If it is still bitter, continue boiling and sample again after five minutes. If bitterness persists, consider transferring them to a second pot of boiling water for an additional three to five minutes. Beyond this point, in my opinion, if further cooking is required, the greens are too bitter.

Preferences vary; some favor dilution, masking, and distraction to leaching, as it allows them to consume fresh uncooked leaves. Others lean towards cooked greens. However, for many, these distinctions are irrelevant. Farmers, for example, simply prepare their foods in a way that tastes good, not concerning themselves with labels like dilution, masking, or distracting. For them, bacon grease, bacon bits, shredded hard-boiled eggs, and vinegar are just components of a delicious salad dressing.

Dandelion Salad Recipe

dandelion salad recipe
Dandelion salad

Ingredients:

– 2 quarts cleaned dandelion (cut into ½-inch pieces)

– ½ medium-sized onion, finely minced

– Olive oil (or preferred oil)

– Wine vinegar (or preferred vinegar) (Proportion: 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar)

– Season with ½ tsp. salt and 1/8 tsp. garlic salt.

Directions:

  1. Carefully dry the cleaned dandelion.
  2. Gently mix all the ingredients together.
  3. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
  4. Boil enough hard-boiled eggs (at least 2 per person).
  5. Eggs may be sliced into the salad, or alternatively, serve the eggs separately, allowing each person to add as desired.

Enjoy this flavorful dandelion salad, adjusting the ingredients to your taste preferences!

Concluding

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Now equipped with valuable information, you can derive greater satisfaction from your dandelion greens. Consider the delightful prospect of a melted cheese and dandelion sandwich—a tempting choice to explore and savor!

 

Suggested resources for preppers:

Harvesting and canning wild greens

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

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