I don’t really have problems eating vegetables. Spinach, for instance, was something my mother made me eat from a young age because it’s packed with nutrients. In other words, I got used to it in time. But why can’t some adults handle the bitterness of spinach?
Spinach can become bitter because of 1) high temperatures, 2) bolting, 3) chemical content, 4) overcooking, and 5) taste sensitivity. Choose younger spinach leaves as they have little to no bitterness. Also, adding oil, spices, and dairy to spinach dishes can counteract, if not completely eliminate, the natural bitterness of this vegetable.
When cooked properly, I find that spinach typically has a mild sweetness to it. Still, it can get pretty bitter. So I understand why some may not like it. But don’t worry, I’ll share with you sure-fire tips for cooking delicious spinach dishes!
1. High Temperatures
Temperatures over 75°F can alter the chemical composition of spinach leaves causing them to become bitter. As a cool-season vegetable, spinach will taste best when grown in temperatures between 50–75°F.
More often than not, the sweltering heat of summer can make your lush spinach bitter and unpalatable. Their unpleasant flavor is a direct result of very hot weather!
Bitter spinach is usually produced because of stunted growth and lower quality due to growing temperatures consistently going over 75°F or 23°C.
Your spinach should be grown at cool temperatures because this will induce the plant to reduce its energy usage. In turn, the sugar stored in your spinach leaves will increase—giving them a sweeter taste.
Grow the delicious—non-bitter—spinach with day temperatures of 65–75°F (18–23°C) and night temperatures of 50–55°F (10–12°C)!
As such you want your spinach to mature before the hot summer days. You can also apply this to other cool-season leafy greens like cabbage, kale, and lettuce.
For the best-tasting yield, you would ideally want to grow your spinach in either spring or fall. Heck, you can even grow them during both seasons for long-term harvest.
Pro Tip: After your spring harvest, let your spinach continue growing for the fall harvest. Just leave 2 inches of the spinach crown and it will continue growing. This method can also be done for overwintering spinach.
Once the spinach plant bolts, or develops flowers and seeds, its leaves will become p bitter and off-flavors. Hence, they must be harvested before flower stalks grow on spinach. This applies to many other plants and herbs as well.
Increased day length, drought, and high temperatures will result in bolting for your spinach plants. Not yet familiar with that term? Don’t worry and let me explain!
Spinach is likely to bolt once the day length persistently becomes longer than 12 hours. This is also true for flowering plants like aster and vegetables like potatoes.
Bolting in plants like spinach refers to the natural process of producing a thick and strong central stem where its flower stalk will grow.
Once spent, the seeds from dry flowers will fall and hopefully grow well once the growing conditions are favorable again.
Discover more about this topic in our article on signs of bolting in spinach!
Plants resort to bolting to protect themselves from high temperatures that they can’t tolerate. In short, they basically induce themselves to seed so they can ensure reproduction in the following growing season.
However, when the spinach plant is in the process of bolting, its leaves also start to deteriorate. This prevents spinach leaves from growing further and makes them taste bitter and unpalatable for most people.
Some would even argue that the leaves of a bolted spinach plant are inedible! But leaves from bolted spinach are still safe to eat—just not as enjoyable.
3. Chemical Content
The natural chemical compounds in spinach, including major nutrients, flavonoids, and oxalate, contribute to the bitter taste of spinach and many other vegetables.
Unlike what most people expect, plants have survived through the ages despite not having a lot of means to protect themselves from being feasted on by humans and animals alike.
However, the seemingly little ways they protect themselves are quite effective!
You see, oxalate, for instance, can effectively protect spinach from numerous pesky insects. Oxalic acid is a substance that crystallizes upon coming into contact with calcium. Leaving a bitter aftertaste in the mouth.
Below are some of the essential nutrients found in spinach that also impart a mild bitterness:
- Phenolic compounds
Such chemical compounds have been found to promote good metabolism, act as anti-oxidants, and fight against different types of disease-causing agents. In other words, yes—eating spinach does come with a lot of health benefits!
This is why a variety of cultures encourage eating bitter foods like spinach, broccoli, and bitter melon from a young age as they are believed to have many health benefits.
When overcooked, spinach leaves normally taste bitter. Spinach must not be cooked for more than 10 minutes, to prevent it from tasting even more bitter.
Regardless of the exact method used—boiling, blanching sautéing, steaming, or stir-frying—overcooking leads to the easier release of bitter-tasting chemical compounds in spinach.
In effect, the mushy, sometimes slimy, overcooked spinach will taste very bitter and off-putting. Honestly, I know many people who find overcooked spinach more unappealing than raw leaves for this reason.
This is even more noticeable in old spinach leaves that are way past their prime. Compared to younger spinach leaves, otherwise called baby spinach, old leaves already have a more distinctly bitter taste.
When overcooked, this unpleasant bitterness becomes even more pronounced. Because of this, I also don’t recommend repeatedly reheating leftover spinach dishes since the same happens. Instead, pair them with hot carbs like pasta, bread, or rice.
More importantly, bitter overcooked spinach is less nutritious than fresh ones included in green salads and smoothies.
Vitamin C, in particular, is lost when spinach is overcooked. That is unless they were included in soups or stews as this nutrient will be retained in the broth they are cooked in.
5. Taste Sensitivity
Some people simply have more sensitivity toward bitterness in vegetables such as spinach. This is especially true for those who didn’t grow up eating such foods.
Frankly, I never really found spinach all that bitter. However, growing up—and even now—I do know some people that find it very bitter, even if we’re eating the same dish. As it turns out, this has something to do with taste sensitivities.
Bitterness is an acquired taste. Infants normally reject bitter food, like pureed spinach, since we associate such a strong flavor with toxins. Because yes, most plant toxins are bitter.
Children can develop a natural aversion to spinach and similar vegetables as a result. However, when a baby’s mom starts eating leafy and cruciferous vegetables while breastfeeding, the child will likely grow up okay with eating spinach. They might even love it!
Planning on creating a vegetable garden? Check our article on vegetables and herbs that prefer full sun!
This is because diet can affect the flavor of breast milk. So the typically sweet milk they drink as an infant will faintly taste bitter. As they continue drinking it, they’ll grow used to the taste.
Aside from this, we are genetically predisposed to being mildly, moderately, or highly sensitive to bitter flavors. So if your parents are super sensitive to bitter spinach, you likely will be too.
But this is not permanent. You can also build your tolerance for bitter food as you can with spicy dishes.
If you’re not up for that, you won’t miss out on the nutrients spinach can give you. Just head on to the next section to find out how!
Can You Make Bitter Spinach Taste Better? (Effective Way!)
Adding flavorful ingredients such as spices, seasonings, oils, and dairy to spinach dishes can improve its overall taste and neutralizes any bitterness.
It actually isn’t all that hard to make a delicious dish centered around spinach even if it’s quite bitter when raw. All you need are a few more ingredients to make it taste amazing!
Here are additional ingredients that can make bitter spinach taste great:
Sweeteners can be especially great additions to vegetable dishes for children. A 2009 study shows that about 67% of preschoolers liked sweetened vegetables over bitter ones.
Now, I know that some people recommend removing the stems of spinach since they can be especially bitter. However, I find that cooking them properly is enough to remove that. What’s more, is that the stem is rich in fiber and many other nutrients so I like keeping it.
Are there bolt-resistant spinach varieties?
Bolt-resistant varieties of spinach include Bloomsdale, Olympia, Space, and Tyee. These generally have smooth dark green leaves. Another benefit to them is that they’re commonly fast-growing and resistant to diseases such as downy mildew. However, even bolt-resistant spinach varieties will not remain vegetative forever.
Will frozen spinach taste bitter?
When compared to freshly cut or cooked spinach, frozen spinach doesn’t taste that much different. It’s neither less nor more bitter than fresh spinach. However, the texture will greatly differ. Once thawed, frozen spinach is substantially softer than fresh leaves. Nevertheless, frozen spinach is still very nutritious if it’s flash-frozen at its peak.
Is it normal for spinach to have a metallic taste?
Spinach can sometimes have a metallic taste if nutrients and minerals such as iron and manganese are readily available for release. This normally happens after they are cooked since the process makes such nutrients more readily accessible. For context, 100 grams of boiled spinach has 3.57 mg of iron, whereas raw spinach only has 2.71 mg.
What are the best recipes to use bitter spinach?
Bitter spinach is great for both savory and sweet dishes so long as enough seasonings are added to offset its bitterness. Common recipes for spinach include salads, wraps, sandwiches, omelets, casseroles, soups, pasta, pizzas, and vegetable-and-fruit smoothies or shakes.
Summary of Why Spinach Tastes Bitter
Spinach can taste bitter as a result of growing temperatures above 75°F, bolting in summer, natural chemical content, cooking for longer than 10 minutes, and heightened sensitivity to bitterness.
However, adding flavorful ingredients like different spices, seasonings, oils, and dairy to spinach dishes can partially or completely remove the bitter taste. Otherwise, people can simply buy baby spinach which is naturally more tender and sweet than mature leaves.
- “Spinacia oleracea” by n/a in NC State Extension
- “Spinach” by Adriana Janovich in Washington State University
- “Spinach in the Garden” by Dan Drost in Utah State University Extension
- “Spinach, Spinacia oleracea” by Susan Mahr in the University of Wisconsin – Madison
- “Home Vegetable Gardening in Washington” by Carol Miles, Gale Sterrett, Lyn Hesnault, Chris Benedict, and Catherine Daniels in Washington State University Extension
- “Growing Malabar and New Zealand Spinach” by Susan Marquesen in PennState Extension
- “Vegetable…Not Spinach” by Yixiao Jiang in Penn State Univeristy
- “Is Oxalate Responsible for the Unpleasant Taste of Spinach Leaves?” by Hideki Horie and Hidekazu Ito in ResearchGate
- “The Role of Fla The Role of Flavor-Flavor Conditioning and Sensor or Conditioning and Sensory-Based, y-Based, Vegetable-Themed Education in Increasing Vegetable Consumption in Elementary School-Aged Children” by Meagan Roxanne Latimer in DigitalCommons
- “Selecting, Storing, and Serving Ohio Greens” by Barbara A. Brahm and Joyce Riley in Ohio State University Extension
- “Developing Good Taste” by Sabine Zempleni in the University of Nebraska System