Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. Sometimes our curry doesn’t turn out exactly as we would like! If you are sat scratching your head wondering, ‘why is my curry bitter?’ you’re amongst good company. The great news is by identifying the problem, you are on your way to becoming a better curry chef. Today I’ll give you all the reasons why curry might be a little bitter and steps you can take to fix it.
Bitter Curry? | The Most Likely Reasons
In most cases, bitter curry is caused by overcooking your garlic. Overcooked garlic (normally dark-brown) can make any dish taste acrid and bitter. It only needs around a minute to soften, and pale golden is the colour to aim for, especially when cooking on high heat.
The good news in this case?
That said, it isn’t always garlic that is the problem. Below you’ll find many other likely culprits if your curry has turned a little bitter. Such as: -
- Raw or overcooked onions
- Acidic tomatoes (especially the tinned variety)
- The presence of raw ginger
- Burnt spices
- Citrus elements
- Overuse of elements such as fenugreek or anise
- Bitter elements in garam masala
- Addition or curdling of dairy products
- Too much curry powder
- Using spices that are past their best
Read on to discover why burnt garlic has such a strong effect, along with other likely causes and solutions for fixing bitter curry…
Why is My Curry Bitter? | Top 12 Causes of Bitter Tasting Curry
As we’ve just said, burning your garlic paste is more than likely why your curry is so bitter.
But why does it happen?
Well, there are a few reasons.
Garlic, like onions, actually contains naturally occurring fructose (a posh name for sugar). When garlic is heated, these sugars are released. If your pan is too hot, or you overcook your garlic, then these sugars burn, creating a bitter taste.
Like meats and starchy vegetables, certain foods can produce pleasant tastes when slightly burned. (it’s the same process that gives you brown stripes on your steak, called the Maillard reaction). However, it doesn’t really work with garlic.
If you’ve ever burned sugar while making toffee or baking, you’ll already know this particularly unpleasant taste.
Why does garlic burn so quickly?
Well, my friends. It is to do with science.
Yup. In curry, we tend to use garlic paste. Garlic paste has a greater surface area than chopped or whole garlic. As a result, there is more surface in contact with the pan, meaning that it cooks quicker!
Keep a close eye on garlic paste when cooking, especially when using high heat (recommended). Garlic and ginger paste cook in seconds. Be disciplined, and don’t cook it on its own for longer than a minute.
Raw or Undercooked Onions
There’s one thing that features heavily in most BIR curries.
If you’ve made a dish, such as a dopiaza, that has onions by the boatload, there is a good chance that this is a prime source of your curry being bitter.
You haven’t cooked your onions for long enough.
As onions cook and soften, they turn slightly sweet. However, if they are undercooked, they can taste really harsh and bitter.
Add your onions to the dish earlier. You could also consider chopping them more finely to reduce cooking time.
Onions, just like garlic, are part of the Allium family of plants. They both have vaguely similar characteristics.
And yep, you guessed it…
What applies to garlic also applies to onions when it comes to burning them. I love fried onions. But if you go a little too far, they can easily turn from sweet to bitter.
Don’t burn your onions. If you are starting by frying them, aim for onions that are pale to dark yellow in colour. If you see them starting to turn brown, add a liquid element or reduce the heat.
This is a rookie mistake that I see people making all the time.
Tomatoes do have to be cooked down to release their sweetness. This is especially true if you are cooking a dish that uses tinned tomatoes. If they haven’t had long enough in the pan, the flavour of tinned tomatoes can be quite sharp and acidic.
In other words.
By cooking your dish for slightly longer, you should notice that the acidic taste dissipates with a little time.
Keep simmering away and regularly taste for any improvement.
Ginger is one of the predominant tastes in curry. So if you are wondering why is my curry bitter, this is fairly high on the list of causes.
Ginger, being a root, does take a little time to soften and cook. If it is still a bit raw, this can produce a very strong and bitter note.
Add your ginger earlier. Unless the dish calls for it, don’t add raw ginger in the latter stages of cooking. Consider making your ginger into a paste to reduce cooking time. Oh, and make sure the skin is completely removed from your ginger root, as it is really bitter.
Don’t get me wrong. Toasting your spices in curry is nearly always a very good thing.
Toasting good, cremating, not so much.
Spices, just like garlic paste, have a pretty large surface area in powder form. As a result, it can be quite easy to burn them in the blink of an eye.
You are looking for a slight darkening of the spice powder. If it turns brown, or god forbid, black, then the chances are that you have overdone it, which is why your curry tastes bitter.
Avoid adding spices to hot oil until you are ready to cook. And keep a close eye on them. Spices burn really quickly, so give your pan your full attention at this stage.
Now and again, a curry recipe calls for the addition of lemon juice, or occasionally vinegar
This is actually a good thing. Adding an acid enhances the flavours of the spices and can lead to a more rounded and balanced taste.
This isn’t universal to every curry. Certain, sharp curries, like Pathia or Dhansak, are already pretty sour, so adding more acid into the mix will give a really bitter taste.
And there’s more.
When you add lemon juice or acid to curry really matters. It should generally only be done towards the end of the cooking process. Add lemon to a dry pan or ingredients, and you will see it turn brown and bitter really quickly.
Check the list of ingredients before cooking, and taste your curry sauce before adding any other acids.
Too Much Fenugreek/Methi
Methi is one of those herbs you didn’t know you’d missed until you tried it.
There is seldom a curry that can’t be improved with a pinch of methi (also known as fenugreek).
Read the above sentence again. The devil is in the detail.
That’s right, I said a pinch of methi leaves.
If you add too much fenugreek to your curry, you’ll find that it can turn from ‘brilliant’ to ‘bitter’ in the blink of an eye.
Start with a tiny pinch of methi and then taste its effect. Methi leaves are normally dried, meaning they take a little while to hydrate and ‘steep’ in the curry, so the effects might not first be so obvious.
Garam masala is one of those ‘wonder’ spices that works pretty much anywhere.
There are almost as many garam masala blends as there are types of curry. Some have a smoky sweetness, whereas others are slightly sharp and spicy.
And therein lies the problem.
Not all garam masalas are created equal, and some will feature spices that will encourage bitterness in your curry. If none of the above reasons for why your curry is bitter apply, and you’ve done everything right, give your garam masala a taste to see if this is the source of the bitterness.
Reduce the garam masala. Alternatively, dip a finger into your masala and give it a taste before adding it to your curry. What flavour comes through? Smokiness, sweetness… Or bitterness?
Yoghurt and Dairy
Now and again, you’ll find a curry recipe that calls for the addition of a dollop of yoghurt or a swirl of cream.
Yes, but not always.
Some dishes (especially those containing mild acidic flavours) really don’t work well with dairy. In fact, many will curdle if you add yoghurt or cream.
Essentially curdling is when the milk solids (curds) separate from the whey (also called ‘buttermilk). If you’ve ever tasted neat buttermilk, you’ll already know it can be strong and bitter tasting.
Suppose you’ve added dairy and got a multitude of pale globules scattered throughout your sauce. In that case, there is a good chance that the dairy you have added has curdled, giving your curry a bitter and sharp taste.
Acidic dishes don’t fare too well with added dairy. Any dish that contains acidic elements such as lots of tomatoes, citrus or fruit juice probably won’t benefit from adding cream or yoghurt. If you need to add cream, do so a little at a time and reduce the heat before adding.
Too Much Curry Powder
As with garam masala, certain curry powders contain more bitter elements than others. If you have used curry powder in moderation, it shouldn’t be a problem.
You’ve been trying really hard to impart maximum curry flavour, right? The truth is, you may have slightly overdone it with the curry powder.
Use less curry powder. Easy, right?
This is a big one that many people overlook.
Dried curry spices last a long time. However, they do not last forever.
When subjected to the air and sunlight, curry powder can degrade and turn really bitter in certain cases. Sometimes you’ll find a drop in the intensity of the flavour of your spices and curry powder.
The bottom line.
You end up adding more to compensate. As a result, you end up with a bitter curry (see the above point)
Have a good clear and organise of your spice cupboard. Any old spices that need to go? The good news is that you can create your very own custom spice mixes. Here’s a great guide.
Fixing Bitter Curry | 11 Easy Solutions
Wondering why is my curry bitter? Don’t worry. There is almost always an answer. Here are the easiest and quickest fixes to troubleshoot your tikka and make your curry less bitter.
Check Your Base Gravy!
Sometimes, you need to play detective and go back to basics to fix bitter curry.
Did none of the above conditions apply to you?
Well, you might have to start addressing other areas. Namely, your base gravy. This tasty curry sauce is used in 99.9% of BIR curries, so if it is bitter to start off with, it will influence practically every dish that you make.
Before cooking, give your base gravy a little taste. How is it? If it is bitter from the get-go, then it’s time to prepare a new batch.
Add Some Cream
Provided your bitter curry hasn’t come as a result of curdling, adding a little cream can sometimes help to round out and soften bitter curries.
Here are some general guidelines to follow before taking this step: -
- Ensure your curry pan isn’t too hot. Otherwise, curdling will occur.
- Add cream a little at a time. Then taste. Still bitter? Repeat.
- Make sure your cream is fresh.
- Single cream is easier to stir in than double cream.
- Don’t overdo it. The cream itself contains lactic acid, which in itself can become a source of bitterness in curry
Add Sugar, Jaggery or Sweetness
This is actually a little trick taught to me by an Italian chef, who used it to reduce the acidity of tomato sauce.
A small spoonful of sugar can work wonders in reducing the bitterness of curry. In fact, any sweet element will work in this regard.
Jaggery is raw cane sugar and is often used in Indian cooking (personally, I love it as it comes in solid cubes and is easy to handle and measure).
If you don’t have sugar or jaggery, don’t worry, there are other sweet things you can add, such as: -
- A piece of ripe banana
- Mango chutney
- Artificial sweetener (use really sparingly)
- Coconut cream or milk
- Powdered almonds
Increase the Cooking Time
If you’ve read my guide to BIR curries, you’ll already know that I recommend cooking curry quickly. But that said, not everyone’s hob or stove performs the same.
If you aren’t getting the heat you need from your hob, you may very well need to increase the cooking time to reduce the bitterness. Sometimes this can produce excellent results.
Do me a favour…
Think about carrots.
You bet. When raw, they can be quite hard and a little acidic. Cook them (or roast them) for a while, and what happens?
That’s right, they turn sweet. The same can also be true for your curry. So if your curry is a little bitter, another 5 – 10 minutes on the hob can sometimes make all the difference.
The cause of bitterness in curry is often that the dish isn’t balanced and is under seasoned. This allows the acidic elements to shine through.
“Salt was found to improve the perception of product thickness, enhance sweetness, mask metallic or chemical off-notes, and round out overall flavour while improving flavour intensity.”
That’s right, enhance sweetness. Adding a small pinch of salt to an otherwise bitter curry might just be enough to take off that cutting edge.
Now you are going to want to be conservative here.
A small pinch of baking soda can often bring a bitter curry under control.
Baking soda is alkaline. The effect it has is to neutralise acidic elements in your dish. This can often work wonders.
But, it’s important to note.
Don’t use too much baking soda in an attempt to reduce bitterness. Baking soda has a strong and quite sharp metallic taste, which can also be bitter if used in large quantities.
Dilute Your Curry!
If you’ve ever drunk fruit squash, you’ll know that the more water you add, the weaker the taste.
The same is true for curry sauce, especially if it is bitter.
By ‘dilute’, I don’t strictly mean adding water.
Suppose you can bring other elements to the fore. In that case, this may be enough to mask or completely eradicate bitter-tasting curry.
Here are a few things you could consider adding to ‘dilute’ a bitter curry: -
- Base gravy
- More ingredients (vegetables in particular work really well)
- Fruit Juice (mango or pineapple are both great)
Often it is the little things that make all the difference.
What would you say if I told you that you could add an ingredient that tastes great and reduces acidity?
Coriander (or, if you are from the USA, ‘cilantro’) is actually a mild alkaline, with a PH of 9.0.
Just like baking powder, this can work wonders to bring a bitter curry back under control.
Coriander tastes amazing and works well with most curries (at least, most people think so)
Store Your Food Overnight
Now, this isn’t a particularly quick fix. But I’ve found that it can work well if my curry is a little harsh or bitter.
When food is stored overnight, various chemical reactions and interactions can work well to reduce acidity and bitterness. Different parts of the dish soak into other ingredients, and you’ll tend to find that the next day’s curry tastes much more ‘balanced’.
Why does this happen, and why is overnight curry so good?
Add a Few Chunks of Potato
Potatoes are my go-to fix when I just can’t seem to get a curry on point. They work really well to reduce bitterness in curry.
Think of them like this…
They are like little sponges. Potatoes are packed with starch, which happens to be super absorbent. As they cook and soften, this starch will soak up some of the cooking liquid, and this will, of course, include some bitter elements within your dish.
Cook them for long enough, and they will break down and thicken your sauce.
Winner winner, vindaloo for dinner!
Listen, as I said right at the beginning. The occasional kitchen disaster happens to the best of us.
And if I’m being honest…
Sometimes a bitter curry simply can’t be saved.
Figure out where you went wrong and start cooking your curry again from scratch. Better to spend another 15 minutes cooking than to doggedly plough your way through an unappetising curry.
But as Albert Einstein said, ‘allegedly’: -
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
You need to ask yourself “why is my curry bitter” to make it better.
Work your way through my list of causes for bitter curry above and see if any apply to you. Have a good look at the recipe. Did you follow it exactly? Are your spices in date? Have you added something you shouldn’t or burned an ingredient?
Once you find the answer, you’ll nearly always find the reason as to why your curry is bitter.
Don’t lose heart. If you’ve found yourself asking why is my curry bitter, you need to see it as a good thing. Why? Because it means once you find the answer, you’ll be a better curry chef! Solving problems like this is part of the fun! With my 11 solutions above, hopefully, one will work. Check out my recipes and guides if you want a few curry dishes that really work. They have been tried and tested and give truly authentic results.