Bitterness in Greek Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce (Tzatziki)

Dear Bobbie,

I’m curious if you have a recipe for tzatziki sauce? I’ve tried several that I’ve found online and can’t seem to get any of them to taste right. There are so many out there and they all use varying amounts of olive oil, lemon juice, dill, garlic, etc. I’ve tried using just Greek yogurt, I’ve tried a mix of yogurt and sour cream and I always seem to get a slightly chalky and bitter after-texture. It makes you think that something powdered has not fully incorporated, even though there is nothing powdered in the actual recipe. I’ve come up with a gyro spice recipe and make gyro meatballs, but want to be able to make the sauce to accompany them! Thanks for any help you can give me!

Trying Not to Be Bitter in Bloomington

While I love gyros and the tzatziki cucumber sauce traditionally served with them, I’ve never tried making them myself, even though it’s been on my mental “TRY THIS SOON” list for years. Heather showed us how to make a cucumber and garlic sauce when she prepared Mediterranean Beef Pitas. The sauce recipe is part way down the page. (Scroll all the way down that page to see Heather’s youngest demonstrating a cucumber and yogurt facial.)

Even though I don’t have a recipe of my own, your question intrigued me, and I wanted to find an answer. Turns out there are a few possibilities, including one I didn’t see coming at all.

Buckle up, this may get science-y.

First, the cucumbers: Before you even start the recipe, make sure your cucumbers are not bitter. It may seem obvious, but there’s always someone who had no idea – and once upon a time, that was me.

Sometimes cucumbers become bitter because of the weather (too hot, not enough rain) and other times it’s due to being grown in poor soil that’s lacking in the needed nutrients. Cucumbers can also become bitter with age (hmmm…just like people?) Some varieties are more likely to be bitter than others.

English cucumbers (also called European, burpless, seedless, hothouse, or gourmet cucumbers) tend toward less bitterness, compared to the more common cucumbers found in American markets, making them the cukes to choose if bitterness is what you want to avoid. They’ll be pricier than their common cousins, but these longer, narrower varieties have a thinner skin, tiny seeds and a crisper, sweeter texture.  Kirby cucumbers can also be used – these smallish, thinner skinned cukes with inconspicuous seeds are great for pickling, but are handy to use in salads or sliced just so, and in some areas they’re available year ‘round.

As for the chalkiness you mentioned: cucumbers can have an astringent effect on the tongue, causing a dry or chalky feeling in the mouth. The astringency lies primarily in the juice, so thoroughly squeezing the juice from the cucumbers after seeding and shredding or grating them can help to reduce this astringent/chalky effect. You can press the cucumber shreds in a potato ricer, or wrap them in a clean non-terry dishcloth or cheese cloth, and squeeze the dickens out of them.

Now for the possibility that came at me from left field. The olive oil. Go figure.

Olives have beneficial compounds, called polyphenols, which naturally taste bitter. While a bitter cucumber can be quite unpleasant, a bit of bitterness in olive oil is not a bad thing.* In fact, it turns out that bitterness and pungency are considered positive qualities by professional olive oil tasters.**

So, some of the best extra virgin olive oils have an inherent bitterness. Oils made from olives harvested later in the season (which are, therefore, riper) have less of the polyphenol compounds responsible for bitterness and pungency. Oils made from the earlier harvested olives contain higher polyphenol levels, and are therefore, more bitter. The early-harvest oils also tend to have a greener color than the later-harvest ones. In general, the greener the oil, the higher the polyphenol content, and therefore, the more bitterness you can expect. Incidentally, the greener, more bitter, higher polyphenol oils have a longer shelf-life.

And, on top of all that, using your food processor or blender can increase the bitterness of the extra virgin olive oil even more!

The polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil are coated in fatty acids, keeping them from dispersing in a water-based liquid. When you use a blender or food processor to create an emulsion (such as mayonnaise, or tzatziki sauce) the blades break the olive oil into smaller droplets, releasing more of the polyphenols to disperse throughout the food, making the food taste more bitter.

You can avoid this by whisking in the olive oil by hand, as hand-mixing can’t break the olive oil into small enough droplets to cause a significant release of polyphenols.

So, what’s the bottom line to reduce bitterness and chalkiness in tzatziki?

  • Choose non-bitter cucumbers
  • Squeeze out all the cucumber juice you can
  • Choose a lighter-colored olive oil, rather than a darker green one
  • Whisk in olive oil by hand.

I hope one or more of these ideas solves your dilemma, and maybe you’ll share your gyro spice recipe?

*Bitterness is not universally seen as a negative trait in foods. Many leafy greens are bitter. So is grapefruit, tea and coffee. Mmm, coffee…

**Did you know there were professional olive oil tasters? Me neither. These are people who are trained, like wine-tasters and coffee-tasters, to detect the subtle differences and qualities distinguishing a quality product from one produced using inferior sources or substandard methods.


Bobbie Laughman is an elder caregiver, writer, old school Trekkie and relatively new gramma, who has survived twelve tourist seasons in Gettysburg, PA. If you have a question you’d like Bobbie to answer, send it to her at


  1. JackieSteeves on October 7, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Our local greek restaurants use a yogurt and sour cream combination as the base of the tzatziki. Some greek yogurts are naturally bitter and chaulky. (I’m thinking President’s Choice which tastes like bile! ugh!)

    So don’t forget to make sure your yogurt isn’t the source of the taste.

  2. madbadger2742 on October 4, 2011 at 6:50 am

    I drain traditional yogurt in flour sack overnight, shred the cukes finely, salt them, and drain them thoroughly, and I don’t think I add olive oil… or maybe it’s just enough to loosen the mixture up. I’m very sensitive to bitter and I like this sauce.

  3. KeterMagick on October 3, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    My recipe may not be traditional – I reconstructed the taste of some tzatziki I liked by guesstimation once when I had some use-it-or-lose-it yogurt, and it turned out as I wanted, so I stuck with it. I’ve never noticed any bitterness, but I should admit at this point that I actually like a bit of bitterness, so it might be that I simply haven’t noticed. I make mine with the smallest cukes I can find, peeled and hand chopped into small bits. I also use sweet yellow onion, also hand chopped very fine. Instead of dill, I use celery seed and a bit of fresh, finely ground black pepper, and fresh lemon juice for the acid kick. I am sparing with the olive oil (yes, it goes on top), but add a bit of oil from my minced garlic jar so it has just a light flavor. The yogurt I use is homemade, full fat, made from organic, hormone free cow’s milk, whereas the yogurt used in traditional tzatziki is often made from sheep or goat milk. Try topping your tzatziki with tapenade made with olives or sweet red pepper, or dusting with zahtar ( ) and fresh leaves from basil or oregano (mint probably would work, too – haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet, though).

  4. MeUncensored on October 3, 2011 at 8:13 am

    I have made a homemade tzatziki for years the key is the English/ burpless cucumbers or Armenian/ Japanese cucumbers. Also i have found not to mix the olive oil in but rather pour it on top of the tzatziki sauce that’s how they serve it in Greece with an olive perched on top.

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