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Why Is My Gravy So Bitter?

Taste-testing your gravy only to make a face? If bitterness took over, let’s go over why and how to sweeten the deal.

Ah, gravy! At first glance, this savory pan sauce appears deceptively simple to prepare. But try to make it, and the intricacies of even the most basic cooking endeavors suddenly come to light.

The recipe promised a rich and dark gravy, the kind that generously hugs the meat and makes the mouth water. And yet, upon tasting, the gravy seems to have turned out nothing like what the recipe said.

What went wrong? Why is your gravy bitter?

Why Gravy Becomes Bitter

When your gravy tastes bitter, it’s usually a sign that something has burnt. The question is, what burnt? And at which stage of the gravy’s making did that happen? Here are the likely answers.

Burnt Meat Juices: A gravy starts with the fond—the browned bits and remnants of meat stuck to the bottom of the pan. If these bits are burnt rather than browned, they will impart a bitter taste to the gravy.

The best remedy is to sear or roast the meat at a gentler temperature next time. Sure, browning demands dry heat and takes place above the boiling point of water. But it doesn’t necessitate the highest heat you could possibly get.

Cranking Up the Heat Too High: If you cook the gravy over too high a heat, the cornstarch or flour you thickened it with can burn. Burnt starches give your gravy an acrid and bitter taste.

To avoid this in the future, resist the urge to turn the heat up too high. Gravy is best prepared over a medium-low to medium heat. This heat setting allows the cornstarch or flour to integrate smoothly into the sauce without the risk of burning.

Not Stirring the Gravy During Cooking: Gravy, like most other thickened sauces, demands stirring. Without stirring, the bottom layer can stick to the saucepan and burn.

The good news? Ruling out whether you did this or not is easy. After pouring out the gravy from the saucepan, take a good look at the pan’s bottom. A thin film of blackened gravy gives it all away.

Self-Rising Flour: Using self-rising flour instead of all-purpose flour is a two-fold mistake. Not only will self-rising flour leave your gravy tasting bitter, but it will also cause it to foam and bubble vigorously during cooking. Leave this type of flour for cakes and biscuits.

How to Fix Bitter Gravy

So, your gravy burned and now has a bitter taste. What can you do to salvage it now that the deed is done?

First, let’s go over what not to do. While it may be tempting, do not scrape the burnt layer of gravy from the pan’s bottom, as this will only intensify the bitterness. Instead, transfer the gravy to a clean saucepan and continue to the next step.

Sweetness and saltiness can counteract bitterness. A surprising remedy for bitter gravy is to stir in a tablespoon of peanut butter. The creamy, slightly sweet, and salty profile of peanut butter can help balance out the bitterness.

After stirring the peanut butter in, let your gravy simmer over medium-low heat for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld together. Afterward, taste-test the gravy and adjust the seasoning as needed—if it’s still bitter, add a bit more peanut butter; if it’s a little too sweet, season with a dash of salt.

This is not a precise science, so start with small quantities and adjust in small steps. Remember, you can always add more peanut butter or salt. But if you add too much, there’s no going back.

More Things to Consider

The Spices: Adding too much paprika to your gravy, or burning the paprika, can give it a better taste. Add spices mid-cooking and over medium-low heat. This allows them to melt into and meld with the rest of the sauce while preventing them from burning.

The Herbs: While many gravy recipes don’t include fresh herbs, if you choose to incorporate them, exercise caution with the quantity. Overloading on certain herbs, like oregano, can impart a strong bitterness to the gravy, as if you’re biting into the plant itself.

Burnt Garlic: Garlic burns quickly—quicker than most home cooks think. If you’re sautéing garlic for your gravy, start with cold oil, use medium heat, and stop when the garlic starts sizzling and perfumes the air in your kitchen. Beyond this, you risk burning the garlic.

The Pan’s Thickness: Thin, flimsy pans can scorch your gravy because they don’t heat evenly. Make your gravy in a high-quality saucepan with thick walls and a heavy bottom; it will hold on to the head and transfer it evenly to the sauce.

What to Remember

Many foods taste bitter, and a dish can turn out bitter for a variety of reasons. In the case of pan sauces, like gravy, the bitterness can usually be pinned down to one source—burning.

Next time, keep an eye on the heat, give it a good stir now and then, and be careful with those spices. Mistakes happen, but they’re just stepping stones to nailing that perfect dish.

Keep at it, and soon enough, you’ll be whipping up gravy that’s the talk of the table!

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.