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If you’re not growing Swiss chard in your garden already, you should be. Swiss chard is one of the most flavorful (and nutritious) leafy vegetables available. And, despite concerns about bitterness, Swiss chard is almost always palatable. Even if your chard seems too bitter to stomach, there are a number of ways to correct the off-taste, either in the garden or the kitchen.
Often, the culprit behind bitter Swiss chard is a hot, dry spell. Chard is in the same family as beets and spinach and prefers cool weather. Less than ideal growing conditions may cause Swiss chard to bolt, or flower. Bolting signals the end of chard’s life cycle and renders the plant inedible.
If your Swiss chard tastes more bitter than you think it should, don’t worry – there are a number of cooking methods to mask the flavor. Read on to learn how to avoid stressing Swiss chard in the garden, and how to enhance the flavor of this superfood at the table.
4 reasons Swiss chard might taste bitter
Swiss chard, like other members of the Goosefoot plant family, contains a compound called geosmin that gives the vegetable a slightly bitter taste. Many cooks and foodies prefer Swiss chard, spinach, and beetroot for this naturally-occurring bitterness that pairs well with a variety of dishes.
However, there are a number of external factors that may cause Swiss chard to become so bitter that it’s no longer palatable. To cultivate the perfect chard crop, you need to understand the vegetable’s ideal growing conditions.
1. Transplant shock
If your Swiss chard seedlings went out in the garden a little early and were exposed to frost, the mature plants may bolt more easily than chard that was transplanted at the right time. Acclimate seedlings through a process called hardening off, by introducing the young plants to outside temperatures, lighting, and weather conditions in intervals. For more information about hardening off check out my article on transplant shock here.
2. Soil issues
It should go without saying that the most delicious vegetables come from quality soil. Soil with a nutrient deficiency will produce wilted, puny plants. Plant Swiss chard in soil rich in compost and organic matter, and fertilize regularly with organic fertilizer, taking care to not get fertilizer on the leaves, as this is the edible part of the plant.
Swiss chard does best in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. Perform a pH test on your soil and adjust as necessary. Add sulfur, compost, or pine needles to acidify your garden soil. Chard also benefits from an initial feeding with an organic fertilizer at planting. Opt for a 10-10-10 fertilizer (10% each of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) for the healthiest plants and most flavorful chard leaves.
3. Heatwaves and drought
Swiss chard is a cool-weather annual that needs regular watering. Hot weather and dry spells will stress the plants, so keep a watchful eye on the forecast and cover your chard with a shade cloth in the event of a heatwave. If you’re growing Swiss chard in container gardens, move the pots to a shadier spot to protect the plants from the harsh afternoon sun.
For in-row crops of plantings in raised beds, mulch the base of the plants with aged wood chips or cardboard to deflect sunlight and hold moisture in the soil. Just be sure that mulched chard is still getting adequate water to its roots.
Swiss chard needs at least an inch of water per week–use a rain gauge to ensure that your chard’s watering needs are being met. Take care not to overwater Swiss chard, and make sure that the soil is well-draining – chard loves moisture, but can’t stand to sit in wet soil for too long, as root rot is an ever-present threat. Add compost, mulch, or sand to increase drainage in the low spots of your garden.
Although Swiss chard is less likely to bolt in summer than spinach, hot, long summer days will trigger the plant to flower and set seed. Some varieties of Swiss chard are more inclined to bolt than others. Red-stemmed cultivars like Rhubarb and Ruby Red – while striking in the garden alongside other vegetables – may need to be harvested earlier than other varieties. This is no problem – baby chard leaves are fantastic in salads, stir-fries, or really in any recipe that calls for larger leaves.
If your chard has sent up a single, central stalk and produced something resembling a flower bud, it has bolted. If you catch a bolting plant early enough, you can pinch off the flower and still use the younger leaves.
4 ways to cook the bitterness out of Swiss chard
Well, now that you’ve read this article you’ll be sure to make some adjustments with your next planting of Swiss chard. But what about this season’s harvest? Even if your chard got somewhat stressed and produced bitter leaves, there are some cooking hacks to mask the flavor of that pesky geosmin.
1. Separate leaves from the midrib
Swiss chard stems tend to have more bitterness than the leaves. Cut chard leaves away from the stalks and use the leaves for salads, or saute like spinach. Chard midribs may be eaten raw like celery or cooked.
2. Blanching, parboiling, or braising
Blanching is a cooking technique that involves quickly dunking food in boiling water, and then immersing it in ice-cold water immediately afterward. Parboiling is very similar, as it involves the quick dip in cold water, but without the ice bath, allowing the food to continue to cook.
Braising is a culinary technique where food is pan-seared first and then finished by stewing in liquid. All three of these cooking methods cook the bitterness out of Swiss chard while leaving its prized flavor.
Blanch chard first, and then put in a jar with a pickling solution. Use 1 part vinegar (rice vinegar, white wine, apple cider vinegar, or white vinegar all work well) and 1 part water to make a basic brine for refrigerator pickles. Experiment with different ground spices or fresh herbs and write down your favorite recipe! Quick pickles will be ready to eat after about two days.
4. Add salt, fat, or acid
Salt has always been used as a preservative, but salt is an inexpensive way to introduce contrast to a dish–enhancing flavor in the process. Fats like oil or butter are another well-known method for toning down sharp flavors–collards and turnip greens are often cooked with fat and a little bit of lemon juice to mask the bitterness of these leafy greens. Check out this book for more cooking tips and techniques.
Swiss chard is a vegetable in the same family as beets and spinach and has a naturally occurring, slightly bitter compound called geosmin. However, some outside stressors may cause an increase in chard’s bitter taste. Certain culinary techniques like blanching, braising, and pickling may help to mask these bitter flavors. Either way, gardening is an experiment and cooking even more so! Don’t let concerns about bitterness put you off from growing beautiful, flavorful Swiss chard.