Many vinegars are used to cut through fat, to add sharp counterbalance to oil in a dressing, or to amp up the sour notes in a complex sauce. But black vinegar is far more than just a blade of acid. With hints of licorice and malt held together by a distinct umami earthiness that permeates the whole condiment, it’s transformative, providing both acidity and complexity to round out a dish.
“Black vinegar is more aromatic. White vinegar is just sour,” says chef Theresa Lin, the food stylist for Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, one of the most iconic Chinese food films in history.
In northern China, spoonfuls of black vinegar are draped over thick, belt-like noodles with a touch of soy sauce, served with slices of meat, onions, or wood ear mushrooms. In southern China, it’s added to a slow-braise of pork ribs and sugar to create a sweet-and-sour appetizer. In Japan, it’s used to coat glossy cubes of chicken in a sizzling clay pot. In Taiwan, a drop or two of Taiwanese black vinegar (pictured above) is used to flavor thick squid soup.
So what is black vinegar and how is it produced?
The global lineup of vinegars is extensive, but the way they’re made is fundamentally the same. It’s a two-step fermentation process: First, alcohol is made by combining yeast with grain or fruit. The yeast converts the sugars in the grain or fruit into ethanol. Then a bacteria converts that ethanol into acetic acid, which is the main component in vinegar.
Black vinegar is a broad umbrella term for a grain-based vinegar—sometimes aged for years and sometimes infused with flavor. Most black vinegars are aged for at least six months and up to several years, which gives them their signature color. Traditionally, they’re made in a similar process to balsamic, where the vinegar is aged in a container for years so that it develops a distinct level of complexity. The longer that it sits, the more complex the flavors become. The key differences between black vinegar and balsamic are that black vinegar is made with grains instead of grape juice and aged in clay pots instead of barrels. And whereas balsamic vinegar is made using liquid-state fermentation (only the grape juice is fermented), Chinese black vinegar is made by fermenting whole steamed grains.
“Black vinegar is black due to a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction,” during which carbohydrates react with amino acids, explains Su Nan-Wei, a professor at National Taiwan University’s department of agricultural chemistry. “The point is that the main ingredients are made with grain.” Grain gives the vinegar a malt-like base flavor, and the Maillard reaction is responsible for bringing out umami notes.
Black vinegar varies based on where, how, and by whom it’s made.
China is the birthplace of cereal-based black vinegar, and the process eventually spread all across Asia and took on a life of its own. Generally speaking, there are four major regional types in China: the northern Chinese province of Shanxi is known for vinegar made with sorghum, wheat, and barley. The city of Zhenjiang in southern China makes its, more commonly referred to as Chinkiang vinegar, with sticky rice. Sichuan has a black vinegar made with wheat bran and seasoned with a pungent medley of Chinese medicine spices. And finally, the province of Fujian in eastern China makes a glutinous rice vinegar infused with a special fungus that gives the final product more of a dark red hue than black.