Q: What makes barbecue sauce turn bitter? I'm about ready to try making my own. It seems that almost every one I've tried gets bitter when I put it on the chicken or meat. It doesn't taste bitter when it comes out of the bottle, but it does when it comes off the grill. A: There are two things that come to mind immediately that could cause bitterness in barbeque sauces, especially after they've been cooked. One is the sugar, the other is the protein flavoring. Sugar? Yes. Caramelized sugar is often used to color or darken many foods, including sauces. When sugar is heated it first turns golden brown and develops the caramel flavors we know from ice-cream toppings and the interiors of so many candy bars. As heating continues, the sugar gets darker and darker. Eventually it will start to break down completely, and the flavor changes from sweet caramel to bitter. Burnt sugar is not pleasant. The other possible source of the bitterness you taste could be protein. Some sauces and many foods use "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" to provide a deeper, meaty flavor or to enhance the flavor of meat.But proteins, too, will become very bitter as they break down. They're made of long chains of amino acids. No one wants to live on a diet, however well-balanced, of pure amino acids because they are so incredibly bitter. If you've ever overcooked meat to the point that it is truly black and charred, that black stuff is very bitter broken-down protein. The fact that the bitterness is noticeable only after you've grilled the meat suggests that you might be putting it on too soon in the cooking. Sweet sauces should only be added to the meat in the final few minutes of cooking, unless you are using a very low heat. Sugar will make meat brown faster, but it can make the meat too dark before it is done, or break down and turn bitter if it's cooked too long. Try just basting the meat with sauce in the final five minutes on the grill and see if that helps. Q: Is there any way to take the heat out of hot peppers? I've gotten sensitive to the heat recently. I bought a whole bag of jalapeños thinking that they should be fairly mild, but it seems I got some with heat. What can I do to make them milder? A: The heat in peppers is mostly in those white membranes that hold the seeds to the inside of the pepper, with some heat in the seeds themselves. So the only way to remove the heat is to cut each of them open and remove the seeds and membrane. Cooking, freezing, pickling or other treatment is not going to affect how spicy it is. You could just use half the amount a recipe calls for or other smaller quantity to reduce the heat in a recipe. But if you need whole peppers, such as for stuffing with cheese, you'll need to take the insides out of each one. Cut the top off the pepper, and if a sharp knife isn't enough to get the membranes out, try using kitchen scissors to reach down inside and clip the membranes. If you already have some cooked and the dish is too hot, add some lemon juice. That will help reduce the sensation of burning. Surprisingly, smaller peppers generally are hotter than larger ones of the same kind. So if you want mild jalapeños, next time choose the largest ones you see in the bin.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietician and health agent at the Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at email@example.com.