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A Beginner's Guide To Black Vinegar

Unlike its white or red counterparts, black vinegar does more than season food—it packs a transformative umami punch.

A spoon with black vinegar being poured into it and splashing over the sides with a yellow background Photo, Christie Vuong.

Vinegar is a widely used ingredient prized for its tartness, ability to cut through rich foods, and balance flavours. But unlike white or red vinegars, black vinegar adds a dimension of umami flavour with a slight, lingering sweetness. Bold and complex, it can transform a dish.

Where does it come from?

Originating in China around 480 B.C., there are four major regional Chinese black vinegars with distinct flavours and aromas due to the assortment of grains and formulas used.

The best known is Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) vinegar, which is made with glutinous rice and malt. It’s praised for having a rich texture and robust taste that’s sweet with complex flavour. Shanxi vinegar, meanwhile, uses sorghum, wheat, and barley and is aged for up to five years. Sharp and sweet Sichuan Baoning vinegar is made from wheat bran that’s steeped in traditional medicinal Chinese herbs and aged up to a year. Fujian Yongchun vinegar, which has a red colour, uses the Solera process like sherry that fractionally blends the glutinous rice-based vinegar with mixtures of ready-aged vinegars over three years.

In Japan and Korea, black vinegar is made with brown rice and has a nuttier taste. Taiwan’s crisp and fruitier version is produced in a similar fashion to Worcestershire sauce, steeping rice vinegar with a melange of vegetables or fruit, licorice and sometimes chilies that’s left to ferment for at least a year. The result is a simple and clean aroma, like a young versus an aged wine.

How is it made?

Black vinegar follows a two-step fermentation process like most fruit-based vinegars, but is produced from a combination of grains, such as glutinous or black sticky rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, and barley. It’s aged a minimum of six months and gets its signature colour and umami flavours from the Maillard reaction, a chemical process where carbohydrates react with amino acids.

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Many compare black vinegar to balsamic, since both are dark in appearance, and have complex profiles. Both are syrupy but pourable, however black vinegar is less sweet than balsamic and exhibits distinct variations in taste depending on the country or region it’s produced in. Like balsamic, black vinegar is aged, but instead of barrels, most black vinegars are aged in clay pots.

How do I cook with it?

As an all-purpose pantry staple, black vinegar has wide applications in Asian cuisines, adding umami, sweetness, and a little acidity to the dishes it’s used in. It can be added to marinades and bastes for fatty meats and fish, used in dressings and sauces, and works in cold appetizers like a smashed cucumber salad and dressing noodles. Its flavour profile can complement any soy sauce-based dish and can replace lemon juice to punch up the flavour of scallops in brown butter.

Regional black vinegars are typically used in dishes specific to that region. Chinkiang, with its sweet, sour, bold and umami taste is ideal in salads—from tofu to wood ear or shredded chicken. It can be reduced with some rock sugar for addictive sweet-and-sour ribs, splashed in to brighten a Chinese cabbage and pork belly stir-fry, and is excellent as a dipping sauce with shredded ginger for dumplings.

Shanxi is great generously splashed on Northern-style boiled dumplings and noodles. Baoning works in Sichuan cold sauces, yuxiang and gongbao dishes, as well in hot and sour soup, while Southern coastal seafood dishes benefit from Yongchun.

Vinegar is used sparingly in Taiwan, where a drop or two adds tang to a thick soup, oyster vermicelli, danzai noodles, and grilled meats. A lighter version known as kurozu in Japan can season Japanese-style sweet and sour chicken or be consumed as a health tonic since it contains plenty of essential amino acids.

What should I look for at the grocery store?

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Black vinegar is available in most grocers that sell Asian foods or online. Since a little can go a long way, it's worth splurging a little extra for a high-quality, aged product (which rarely costs more than $30 for a 20-oz. bottle). And while black vinegar doesn’t expire, like any other condiment it’s best to use it before the best before date. Simply store it in a cool, dark place, with the lid tightly screwed on and away from direct sunlight.

Trusty Pick

A Beginner's Guide To Black Vinegar

Gold Plum Chinkiang Vinegar, $2.99, tntsupermarket.com 

Worth-It Splurge

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A Beginner's Guide To Black Vinegar

Soeos Chinkiang Vinegar, $19, amazon.ca

While the products in this piece have been independently chosen, this article contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

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