Alright. I wanna know what’s up with my broccoli plants! Every head I harvest is bitter!
I had the same problem last year. I figured I’d just planted it too late last year, and that the heat had caused the trouble. So I got my broccoli in the ground several weeks earlier this year, but it still happened.
My neighbor grows the most beautiful heads of broccoli every year, and never has bitter broccoli. She even harvests side-shoots throughout the summer, so it can’t be the heat that is affecting them.
My broccoli looks a little yellowish to me, too. Does that mean it’s lacking something? I side-dressed it with plenty of straw and chicken manure.
I also thought I might not be picking it soon enough. If you leave broccoli florets too long, the buds will begin to open up. When this happens, it does get bitter. But I tried harvesting the small side-shoots as soon as they popped out, and they still tasted horrible.
What gives? Why is my broccoli growing bitter?
Broccoli usually turns out bitter due to stressors in its environment, such as too much sun, high temperatures, cold temperatures, a lack of water, or improper soil conditions. Managing these stressors and providing optimal conditions will reduce bitterness.
I considered that it might have been the variety I planted, but this year I used two different varieties (one heirloom, one generic pack of Green Sprouting Broccoli) and they were both bitter. Now that I think of it, the heirloom variety was also called Green Sprouting. Maybe that’s the problem?
Maybe my plants are in more direct sunshine than my neighbors. Maybe if I planted them in a semi-shaded place they might do better? I think I’ll replant in the Fall and see if I have better luck.
It stinks to have all of this broccoli and none of it is edible. But I found answers to this aggravating problem, and I will share them with you in the rest of this article.
What is the Science Behind Bitterness in Broccoli?
For many of us, the mention of broccoli brings to mind thoughts of childhood vegetable battles and tortured pleas of, “just one more bite.” But what exactly is it about this unassuming little green veggie that makes it so unpalatable to some?
The answer lies in a class of chemicals known as glucosinolates. Glucosinolates are sulfur-containing compounds that give broccoli (and other cruciferous vegetables like spinach, brussels sprouts, chard, cabbage, and kale) their characteristic bitterness. When the plant tissue is stressed or damaged, enzymes are released that break down the glucosinolate compounds into molecules called isothiocyanates.
These molecules interact with our taste receptors to create the perception of bitterness. Some people have a higher sensitivity to bitter tastes than others, which may help explain why some folks just can’t stomach broccoli while others love it.
So, that explains what causes the broccoli to be bitter. Interesting stuff. But how do we stop that process from happening while it is growing?
Reasons Why Your Broccoli is Turning Out Bitter
Harvesting broccoli again and again only to have it turn out bitter and inedible can be quite disappointing. As I mentioned above, this can be a quite a mysterious issue, and one that seemingly persists no matter what solution you try. I got lots of advice in my quest to run down this problem and discovered that it all boils down to one thing: stress.
No, I don’t mean stress for me and other gardeners; II am talking about stress for the plant itself! When broccoli plants are stressed, in any way, they will get more and more bitter as a natural result. What counts as stress?
It could be anything that is “non-optimal” conditions: it could be too much or not enough light, the wrong soil conditions, too much or not enough moisture, you name it!
It is important to make sure your broccoli plants are growing in the best conditions possible to avoid this bitterness. This is also why it is so easy to “fix” something when growing broccoli only to have it turn out bitter anyway; you might eliminate one stressor, only to others remain.
When the broccoli is stressed, it will bolt a process in which it stops producing heads and instead begins to produce flowers.
This is another cause of bitterness, since the plant will then begin to produce those bitter compounds as a natural result. If your broccoli starts to bolt, it is best to harvest it quickly because once it does, there’s nothing you can do to stop the increasing bitterness!
Also, the genetics of the broccoli matter, too: Some variations and even specific lineages are just more predisposed to bitterness than others. Though you can manage the bitterness in such plants, as we will learn, there is not much you can do if it is all in the genes!
We’ll look at all the possible stressors and other factors that produce bitter broccoli in the next section.
Factors that Make Broccoli Bitter
The following are some of the most likely factors and stressors that will cause your broccoli to turn bitter, or even cause it to bolt outright. Remember, you need to manage all of these factors as best you can if you want sweeter, crisp broccoli!
Too Hot: A big one. If the temperature gets too hot, the plant will rapidly start to bolt and turn as bitter as can be. This is why it’s important to check your plating location and understand your growing zone before putting your broccoli in the ground.
Too Much Sun: Another big cause of bitterness, one that often gets new or inexperienced gardeners. Too much direct sunlight, even when temperatures are right, can also cause your broccoli to turn bitter, or possibly bolt.
The ideal would be about 6 hours of direct sunlight per day for most varieties, though many species do fine with even less.
Too Little Water: Another common cause of bitterness is too little water, or soil that is allowed to dry out. This stresses the plant and causes bitterness. Remember that your watering schedule is dependent on many factors, so pay attention to the personal needs of your plants.
Incorrect Soil pH: The soil pH is also important; broccoli needs acidic soil, preferably with a pH of 6.0 and up. If the soil pH is too high or too low, it will stress the plant and, yep, lead to bitterness.
Lack of Nitrogen: Another issue some gardeners might have with their broccoli plants is a lack of nitrogen in the soil. Too little nitrogen causes stunted growth and bitter flavor; if you suspect this might be an issue, try adding a slow release fertilizer or organic compost to your soil.
Overcrowding: If your plants are overcrowded, they will compete with each other for reesources, and that will cause stress. Make sure each plant has plenty of space (usually at least 18”) between it and its neighbors in order to avoid this issue.
Late Harvest: Bolting is not an ailment that strikes your broccoli, but a survival strategy. Plants that bolt are deciding to reproduce as early as they can. They’ll usually flower at the end of their normal lifecycle even in ideal conditions, which is why nailing the right time to harvest is always important.
If you wait to long to harvest your mature broccoli, it will be growing more and more bitter all the time. Harvest it as soon as it is ready for milder broccoli!
So there you have it. Now that you know of all the possible causes of bitter broccoli, you can work to make sure that none of them occur in your garden. By managing these stressors, you should be able to get a sweeter broccoli harvest from your garden!
But sometimes, by bad luck or something else, our broccoli is still just a little too bitter. Is there anything we can do about this bitter broc once it is picked?
Dealing with Bitter Broccoli
You need not throw away your hard-won broccoli just because it is a little bitter. It is still possible to make a fine meal of it with a few tricks.
One of the best ways to take the bitter bite out of broccoli is just to cook it at a lower temperature for slightly longer than usual. This will help retain the flavor while reducing some of the bitterness.
You can also add other flavors to your broccoli dishes that either complement or mask its bitter undertones, such as lemon or garlic.
These ingredients will help balance out the flavors in the dish, making it more palatable even if it is a bit too bitter. You can also try a little pinch of salt or sugar, even honey believe it or not, and some folks swear by a splash of vinegar.
Other standbys that pair well with broccoli and can help to tame bitterness are roasting it with a drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of fresh-grated parmesan cheese, or making a light dressing with olive oil, lemon juice and ginger finished with a few red pepper flakes.
But, there is a fine line: you should be cautious not to cook broccoli overly long , as this will amplify rather than reduce the bitterness.
If all else fails, you can also try turning your bitter broccoli into a savory soup or puree. The bitterness may still peek through, but it shouldn’t overpower the dish when it is finished.
I hope these tips will allow you to use and appreciate your broccoli even when it is a little to bitter for your taste.
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.