Why is my broccoli bitter?

Why Can’t I Find Wild Broccoli?

Broccoli’s an interesting food. Kids hate it, adults love it. It’s used in a wide variety of dishes, ranging from Italian to Chinese, and it’s one of the vegetables that consistently appears on lists of “superfoods.”

One strange fact about broccoli, however: you’ll never find it growing in the wild.

What happened to wild broccoli? Did it go the way of Silphium, an exotic plant that was widely grown and consumed in Roman times but went entirely extinct? Have we destroyed its native habitat? Or does it come from an exotic location where no one thinks to look?

The answer, it turns out, is none of the above.

Broccoli Has A Lot of Vegetable “Cousins”

Cabbage. Doesn’t look like broccoli, but it’s super closely related. Like me and my cousin who somehow got every tall gene and is six and a half feet tall. Photo by Emile Guillemot.

What do broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and mustard greens all have in common?

They’re all closely related to each other — and we made all of them from the same original plant.

All of these different vegetables derive from a single plant, native to the Mediterranean, with the scientific name Brassica oleracea italica. This plant, commonly known as “wild cabbage”, was first discovered and consumed more than two thousand years ago by the ancient Etruscans, a group of people living in Italy who eventually launched the Roman Empire.

The Etruscans were skilled plant breeders. They prized the wild cabbage plant for its hardiness and tolerance of salt, but the plant produced only small flowering buds, and it only produced these buds once every two years. The Etruscans selectively bred these plants, creating offspring that produced buds more often and grew larger leaves, providing more bulk to eat.

Wild cabbage. Those flower buds will, after many years of selective breeding, become broccoli (or Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower). Crazy how nature do that. Picture from Wikipedia Commons.

The oldest domesticated vegetable from this plant was kale, which had larger leaves and started appearing around 500 B.C.E.

Further selection led to kale plants with a tighter bunch of leaves around a central bud — cabbage — around 100 C.E.

Europeans continued breeding this plant, but preferred the taste of the immature buds, rather than fully grown leaves. This led to selection for plants that grew a large crown of small, immature buds — cauliflower and broccoli.

Finally, continued breeding in Belgium pushed for more buds spread out on a large stalk — Brussels sprouts.

Broccoli Today

Today, most of the broccoli that we consume comes from China and India. Combined, the two nations produce more than 70 percent of all the broccoli that’s consumed worldwide.

It’s a great food to eat — it contains high levels of vitamins C and K, fiber, vitamins E and B6, and potassium (as much potassium as a banana!). Steam it or sear it in a cast iron skillet with some garlic, kosher salt, and a bit of bacon for extra fat, and it’s delicious.

Interestingly, there’s a new, hybridized form of broccoli, known as Beneforte, which contains higher levels of a glucosinate called glucoraphanin. This compound is believed to reduce cholesterol levels and increase cellular metabolic activity. Beneforte broccoli wasn’t genetically modified through the insertion of foreign genes, unlike GM corn or wheat, but by cross-breeding two varieties of broccoli.

Would you consider broccoli to be genetically modified, as it never existed in the wild and came from selective breeding? Or is this superfood still totally natural?

Kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage are all varieties of a single magical plant species

In some circles, kale has become really, really popular. Once a little-known speciality crop, its meteoric rise is now the subject of national news segments. Some experts are predicting that kale salads will soon be on the menus at TGI Friday’s and McDonald’s.

Cabbage is a different story. Per capita consumption of it peaked way back in the 1920s, when the average American ate 22 pounds of it per year. Nowadays, we eat about eight pounds, most of it disguised as cole slaw or sauerkraut.

This makes it pretty interesting that kale and cabbage — along with broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, and kohlrabi, and several other vegetables — all come from the exact same plant species: Brassica oleracea.

How is this possible? About 2500 years ago, B. oleracea was solely a wild plant that grew along the coast of Britain, France, and countries in the Mediterranean. That wild form — which still exists and is known as wild mustard — looks like this:

Wild mustard. (MPF/Wikimedia commons)

In Ancient Greece and Rome, people began growing the plant in their gardens. To maximize the amount of food they got from it, they preferentially planted seeds from plants that grew more leaves, and after many generations, this sort of artificial selection produced a leafy version of wild mustard that looked more like modern-day kale or collard greens.

Later (sometime after the year 1600), farmers selected for variants of the plant that produced enlarged leaf buds in particular. After many generations, this led to plants with huge heads of tightly rolled leaves — plants that we would call cabbage.

Good ol’ cabbage. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Elsewhere, farmers selected for enlarged flowering structures (creating broccoli and cauliflower), enlarged stems (kohlrabi), many small heads (brussels sprouts). This still goes on: in 1993, a Japanese seed company bred broccolini, a hybrid between broccoli and kai-lan, yet another form of this plant species, known as Chinese broccoli.

Broccolini. (eeetthaannn)

Though they’re all the same species, these various crops are cultivars — different varieties bred to have desirable qualities for human purposes. Virtually all crops have different cultivars, though B. oleracea are especially diverse in appearance and taste (some speculate this is because the plant grew over a wide geographic area to start, so there was more genetic diversity for farmers to tap in to when selectively breeding).

But B. oleracea is standard in that its domesticated forms are much different-looking and more readily edible than its wild form. Wild apples, for instance, are crab apples, and the wild precursor to corn was a hardened grass with just a few kernels. This also happens with domesticated animals: we pick out the qualities we prize, whether it’s the ability to produce lots of milk (dairy cows) or friendliness and loyalty (dogs).

All this speaks to one thing: the remarkable power of human breeding and artificial selection. Changes that would take thousands of years or more to occur via natural selection can occur in hundreds when people are at the controls.

These 6 common vegetables are actually all the same plant

You may never have heard of the plant Brassica Oleracea, but you’ve definitely eaten it.

Six vegetables you can find in any grocery store and which most people eat on a regular basis are actually all from this one plant. Over the last few thousand years, farmers have bred Brassica Oleracea into six “cultivars” that eventually became many of the vegetables we eat:

Skye Gould/Tech Insider Brassica is also known as the wild mustard plant.

“The wild plant is a weedy little herb that prefers to grow on limestone outcroppings all around the coastal Mediterranean region,” Jeanne Osnas, a researcher at Purdue University who blogs as “The Botanist in the Kitchen,” writes in a blog post about Brassica Oleracea. “It is a biennial plant that uses food reserves stored over the winter in its rosette of leaves to produce a spike of a few yellow flowers at the end of its second summer before dying. Those nutritious leaves make its domesticated derivatives important food crops in much of the world now.”

This one plant was selectively bred over hundreds of years to create dozens of wildly different vegetables. By selecting and breeding plants with bigger leaves, or larger buds, the different cultivars (also known as subspecies) were created.

Several Brassica Oleracea cultivars on display. The Botanist in the Kitchen Kale, collard greens, and Chinese broccoli were created by making the leaves of the ancestor plant’s leaves bigger, and were the first brassica domesticated, sometime before 300 BCE. Collard greens were developed in Europe, while Chinese broccoli was domesticated in China.

Red, green and savoy cabbages were created from a kale cultivar (likely the European collard greens) in the 1200s by selecting for a large terminal bud — the growing end at the top of the plant. The leaves are tightly wound around a short, wide stem (the cabbage’s core).

Brussels sprouts are like tiny cabbages, except they grow from the buds along the plant’s stem. They first hit the scene in the 1200s as well.

Kohlrabi was created by selecting for a thicker stalk in a kale plant around the 1400s.

Broccoli was created from a kale predecessor in the 1500s by selecting for the larger flower clusters, which are then harvested before they bloom. Cauliflower was developed from one of hundreds of broccoli varieties.

The amazing evolution of Brassica Oleracea just goes to show: Humans have been tinkering with the genetics of our food for much longer than we’ve been creating what are now known as genetically modified foods, or GMOs. These new lab techniques just let us do it in a more precise and directed way.

Next time you bite into a broccoli stalk, take a second to appreciate the magnificence and deliciousness of human ingenuity. You can read more about the evolution of Brassica Oleracea at The Botanist in the Kitchen.

How Many Florets, or Sliced Stems are in a Head of Broccoli?

View All Produce Conversions

Sometimes it can seem frustrating to try a new recipe and not know how much of an ingredient to purchase at the store. Sometimes they give you a quantity of broccoli in volume (2 cups), sometimes as a weight (12 ounces) and still others the broccoli is given as a produce description (4 large heads). But what are they really talking about? So how much is in a broccoli head?

In order to figure out “how much is in a head of broccoli?” we took a trip to the grocery store to check out the produce selection. We determined that the typical size of broccoli is a medium head about 9 ounces in weight. This is what we chose to use for our test sample.

When we removed the broccoli florets from the medium head, we consistently ended up with 3 1/2 cups of veggies to use. When slicing the stems, 1 broccoli head yielded about 2 cups of stems for cooking. If you need a full pound of broccoli for your recipe, then you will need to purchase about 11/2 medium heads.

Did you know that broccoli originated in Italy off of the Mediterranean in the 6th century BC but today China is the top producer at over 8 million tons a year. Broccoli is a member of the cabbage family and its name is derived from an Italian word meaning “arm.”

Next time your recipe calls for a cup of broccoli florets or sliced stems you’ll know how much you need to purchase at the store to cover it. You can also use our conversion tool below for any custom how much broccoli is in a…” measurements you need.

A Broccoli Head Equals

  • There is 2 Cups (474 mls) of Sliced Broccoli Stems in a Broccoli Head
  • There is 3 ½ Cups (830 mls) of Broccoli Florets in a Broccoli Head

Custom Conversions for Broccoli Head

I need:
of
You need 0.5 Broccoli Heads

What is the Produce Converter?

One of the biggest hassles when cooking and working in the kitchen is when a recipe calls for “the juice of 1 lime” or a similar measurement. Often times when cooking people use bottled juices, pre-sliced vegetables and other convenient cooking time savers. Produce Converter will help you convert the “juice of 1 lime” and other similar recipe instructions into tablespoons, cups and other concrete measurements.

Produce Converter can also be used to figure out how many vegetables to buy when you need, for instance, “A cup of diced onion.” You can use our easy conversion tool to figure out exactly how many onions you need to buy at the store in order to end up with the amount you need for your cooking.

We hope you enjoy Produce Converter and if you have any suggestions for how we can improve it and make your cooking easier please let us know.

A Few Heads of Broccoli, 5 Dinners

Put time into dinner now, and you can make it last forever — or at least the whole week. Welcome to Halfway to Dinner, where we show you how to stretch your staples every which way.

Today: Jodi Moreno from What’s Cooking Good Looking shows us that broccoli doesn’t have to be boring (or steamed).

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Most people keep broccoli on hand in the fridge, because it makes for a quick, easy side dish — but even so, it’s underrated. Sure, it’s easy to steam and dress with butter and salt — but you’ll never find me doing that at my house. instead, I usually shake things up with one of these 5 recipes below. Go on, take broccoli back.

Roasted Broccoli and Cauliflower with Pomegranates
This is a festive and colorful side dish that is perfect for the holidays. Pomegranates add color, flavor, and texture, and tahini paris perfectly with roasted vegetables. This is one of those dishes that looks impressive and fancy, but takes minimal effort and time in the kitchen — even more of a reason it’s perfect for the holidays.

Whole Roasted Broccoli
Whole roasted cauliflower has seen its time in the sun — but broccoli works just as well when roasted whole. You literally just season — I like garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper — and roast for 30 minutes at 400º F. Sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese over the top when it’s done, and pair it with quinoa or rice, and any kind of protein you like. After many years of chopping off the bottom stem of the broccoli, I have since learned that not only is it edible, but it is very tasty and should not be wasted. This is a great way to start eating the whole broccoli, if you’re not already.

Grilled Broccoli
Grilling is my favorite way to prepare broccoli — with not much more than olive oil, salt, and pepper, this is also a very simple dish that you can pair with just about anything else to make a meal. I like to add tamari and sesame oil during cooking, and serve it over rice next to a piece of salmon. Looking for more options? Try this tofu.

Broccoli Pesto
This is great for when you have some leftover broccoli, or if you’re looking to steer away from more obvious broccoli recipes. Making broccoli pesto is super easy, and you can save it for several days in the fridge and use in a number of different ways. It’s great over pasta, or spread over toast. You can even serve it over eggs and eat it for breakfast.

Broccoli Sesame Soup
This soup is hearty, comforting, and so simple to make. It takes no more than 30 to 40 minutes to prepare, and you can make a big batch of it to feed you all week long. I add toasted almonds or toasted walnuts before I purée — they add a creamy texture to the soup without the addition of cream.

Roasted Broccoli and Cauliflower with Pomegranates

Serves a few people as a side dish

1 head broccoli, chopped into florets
1 head cauliflower, chopped into florets
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste
A handful of chives or green onion, chopped
A pinch of parsley, chopped
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Photos by Jodi Moreno.

Do you hate vegetables? You’re not alone. About 20% of the population are “super-tasters”. Super-tasters have more taste buds than other people and are super sensitive to the bitter compounds found in some food and drinks, even at low concentrations. If you have inherited super-taster genes then cruciferous vegetables (flower vegetables in the cabbage family) like bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, radish, swede, turnip, and watercress will taste disgusting.

Their bitter taste is due to mustard oils that are produced from a naturally occurring chemical called glucosinolate when the vegetables are cut, chewed or cooked. This also leads to the release of sulphur molecules, which you can smell during prolonged cooking. Cruciferous vegetables are especially high in glucosinolates and super-tasters find these up to 60% more bitter compared to non-tasters.

In the general population about 30% of people are non-tasters, who have no genetic taste aversions to bitter compounds and the other 50% are between and called “medium tasters”. Sensitivity to bitter compounds does vary based on age with children being more sensitive to bitter taste than adults.

Take the super-taster test

So long as you don’t have an intolerance to blue food colouring, grab some, dip a cotton bud in it and paint the front part of your tongue.

Blue dye sticks to the tongue, but not the taste buds, making them stand out. Isobel H/flickr, CC BY

Blue dye will stain most of the area, but not the papillae which house your taste buds. The papillae will stand out as prominent pink dots. Stick out your tongue and take a picture.

Super-tasters have lots and lots of pink dots because they have double the number of papillae compared to non-tasters. A word of caution, if you overdo the blue food colour and end up swallowing a lot, it might turn your bowel motions green.

Glucosinolates and survival

Historically, the ability to taste glucosinolate could have conferred a survival advantage because super-tasters are better able to detect the taste of toxic substances and poisons, which are often bitter.

Some glucosinolate compounds interfere with iodine absorption. Avoiding these vegetables would have been an advantage because iodine is essential for normal thyroid function. Iodine deficiency in a pregnant woman can cause mental retardation in her offspring, with the most severe form called cretinism.

Super-tasters and health

In Australia, our most recent national health survey found that just 8.2% of adults ate five or more serves of vegetables and met national recommendations. Vegetables are important for health with research showing higher intakes are associated with lower risk of weight gain, heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and age-related health decline.

Researchers examining links between super-tasters and mechanisms that regulate body weight have found complex interactions exist between genetic factors related to taste, food habits, energy metabolism and the environment, which then influences BMI. Other studies have shown super-tasters eat less vegetables overall and non-tasters eat the most. The bottom line is, whether you are a super-taster, non-taster or in between, everyone needs to eat more vegetables.

How to trick your taste buds into loving vegetables

The good news is being around people who eat lots of vegetables, or having parents who eat a lot of vegetables is associated with higher intakes. If you are in charge of trying to get others (or yourself) to eat more veges, try these strategies. Cooking and food preparation methods can help mask the bitter taste or reduce the sulphur smell.

Use cooking techniques to mask bitter taste. Sonson/flickr

  1. Hide the bitter taste of broccoli and cauliflower by serving them with cheese sauce. Stir 1 heaped teaspoon of cornflour into a half cup of milk. Place in a small saucepan on low heat. When almost to the boil, drop in a slice of cheese, and stir until thick.

  2. Neutralise the taste with condiments. Black pepper contains piperine, a pungent substance that acts as a decoy to bitter taste by stimulating the perception of heat. You can get the same effect with chilli or other “hot” spices.

  3. All herbs, spices and flavours including basil, coriander, garlic, ginger, lemon juice or salt help override bitter taste buds receptors by stimulating other taste receptors such as savoury, salty or sour taste. Stir-fry chopped onion with garlic, add a herb or spice of your choice, then roughly chop vegetables and cook till still a bit crunchy.

  4. Reduce the sulphur smell by cooking for as short a time as possible, like microwaving. If you do boil them, use a large saucepan and have the water boiling before you drop them in. This helps reduce release of the gas.

  5. Lastly, increase your intake of vegetables that are not as bitter. Try beans, beetroot, carrots, corn, eggplant, lettuce, onion, peas, pumpkin and sweet potato.

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