How to CookLabor Day

The Instant (Genius) Way to Make Your Juices & Booze-Free Drinks Better

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If you're only shaking your bottle of bitters into Manhattans—or you don't own a bottle at all—you're missing out on some of the elixir's most impressive tricks. Let's fix that!

Kristin Donnelly's Watermelon Agua Fresca
Kristin Donnelly's Watermelon Agua Fresca

You can apply bitters much more widely than you probably realize, because they aren't the type of ingredient to just beach themselves on top of everything else. Instead, they wriggle in and help existing flavors bloom, much like a subtle jolt of salt or acid or heat can.

So yes, you should be keeping bitters in the kitchen, not just on the bar cart or whichever cabinet you tuck your favorite bottles into. As I've written about before, bitters can—and should—be used in all sorts of unexpected places.

In this case, that place is a watermelon agua fresca, the given name for the family of quenching, non-alcoholic drinks that you'll often find served along with Mexican cooking. Some aguas frescas you may know include agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea), horchata, and other fruity, floral, or even seedy concoctions (oh-ho-ho—we meet again, chia seed).

For the bright pink version in her new cookbook Modern Potluck, Kristin Donnelly blends up a heap of watermelon, then stirs in lime juice, sugar, and club soda. But she keeps going, adding in more than a few shakes of Angostura bitters: 16 to 20 drops, to be exact.

"I'm always looking for ways to balance out sweetness," she told me. (She also happens to be the co-founder of the natural lip balm company Stewart & Claire, so she has an extra-special understanding of building fragrances.)

"I love bitters so much, I even tried to create a bitters-inspired lip balm," Donnelly said. "It didn't quite work out, but I did manage to create something that's a dead ringer for a Negroni."

I wanted to know if her subtle riff really made a difference, so each time I tested, I tasted a little cup before and after adding the bitters. Every time, the drink became fuller-flavored and more inviting, but in a hard-to-pin-down way. Though the "before" cup was good, it tasted two-dimensional compared to the "after."

Still skeptical? Next time you make a juice or tonic or lemonade, shake some bitters in and have a sip. It won't taste bitter, and it likely won't even taste of bitters. But you will probably like it more.

The day we photographed this recipe, I carefully carried a tray of it around our office for a guessing game on Facebook Live, asking Food52 staffers what they thought might be genius about it.

The results: 1) They all loved it. 2) They did not guess why.

Kristin Donnelly's Watermelon Agua Fresca

Kristin Donnelly's Watermelon Agua Fresca

Genius Recipes Genius Recipes
Makes about 6 drinks
  • 6 cups chopped seedless watermelon (about 2 pounds after chopping, or 4 to 5 pounds before)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 16 to 20 drops Angostura bitters
  • 1 1/2 cups club soda, chilled
  • 1 cup ice cubes
  • 1 lime, thinly sliced, for serving
Go to Recipe

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by Linda Xiao

Tags: Summer, Alcohol-Free Drinks, Tips & Techniques, Genius Recipes