The perfect bunch of celery is crisp and mild, with a slight peppery bite. Bitter celery is the result of poor growing conditions or an overly mature plant. Although bitter celery isn't suited for a raw treat, cooking it can sometimes salvage the bunch. Lessen the unpleasant flavor with proper preparation and cooking.
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Color can indicate the bitterness in a bunch of celery. The lighter the color, the milder the flavor. Avoid large bunches with darker green stalks and leaves. The mildest portions of celery, usually called the celery hearts, are nearly white to pale green with yellowish leaves. It's also sometimes called "blanched" or "golden" celery. This celery is grown with the stalks covered to prevent sunlight from bringing out the bitter flavors. Tender hearts or light green celery bunches with minimal bitterness have narrow, crisp stalks, with no limpness or wilted leaves.
The smaller, paler inner stalks usually have less bitterness than the darker outer stalks. When cleaning the bunch, set aside the inner stalks for raw eating, and use the more bitter outer stalks for cooked dishes. Celery leaves are also typically more bitter than the stalks, especially if they are a dark green. Use the leaves sparingly in cooked dishes if you are sensitive to the bitter flavor. Cut off the base of the ribs and wash the stalks thoroughly in cold water to remove any soil or dirt that could otherwise affect the flavor.
Cooking helps minimize any bitterness while bringing out the mild flavor and aromatic quality of the celery. When presented with a particularly bitter bunch, serve it cooked rather than raw. Simmering it in a soup or stock until tender tempers bitterness, and the other ingredients in the soup broth mask any bitter flavor that remains. Steaming or simmering celery for 20 minutes also helps bring out the mild flavor. For a crisper texture, try sauteing celery in butter just until it begins to soften. This will reduce mild bitterness but isn't suitable for exceedingly tough, bitter stalks.
Combining celery with complementary flavors brings out the desirable flavors while minimizing bitterness. Strongly aromatic foods lessen bitterness better than mild flavors. Try cooking celery with onions and garlic, or cook it with a rich-flavored meat or soy sauce broth. Acidic foods like tomatoes or strong-flavored options such as cabbage can also help temper the bitterness. Celery also complements mild foods like potatoes, rice and chicken, but exceptionally bitter bunches require thorough cooking and a rich sauce or gravy to completely mask a bitter aftertaste.