An array of dishes from Noodle Lane in Brooklyn.

AAPI Heritage Month Product Spotlight: Black Vinegar

Even if you've never heard of black vinegar, you've probably tasted it.

The ingredient is a "cornerstone of Chinese cuisine," according to Chef Lane Li, the Chinese-born Owner and Executive Chef of Noodle Lane in Brooklyn, New York.

Various Asian cuisines, beginning with Chinese, started to become popular in the United States in the 1920s. With a boom in numerous styles of cuisine from Southeast Asia occurring from the 1990s, now approximately one in nine restaurants in America has Asian providence. Along with its massive increase in popularity in the past few decades, American cooks are no strangers to a variety of Asian ingredient staples such as miso, fish sauce and gochujang, among others. 

Black vinegar, however, may not be as well known to the masses — at least, not yet. Chef Lane's restaurant features authentic dishes from both Sichuan and Cantonese cuisines, many of which feature black vinegar.

“As a key ingredient, it adds both complexity and tanginess to dishes ranging from soups to cold salads,” she says. 

Here’s everything you need to know about this enigmatic ingredient before you inevitably add it to your cabinet of cooking staples.

What is Black Vinegar?

Vinegar is a fermented product that can be made from a number of different plant sources, and in the case of black vinegar, it can be made from a number of grains that are common in Chinese culture.

“Chinese black vinegar is typically made from fermented rice, wheat, barley or sorghum,” Chef Lane says. “It undergoes a slow fermentation process to develop its distinctive flavor.”

Like other varieties of dark vinegar, black vinegar is typically aged for a number of months in various vessels in order to develop not only complexity but also its signature deep color. Different varieties of black vinegar are utilized throughout various Asian cuisines, but its origin is Chinese, and it tends to be always fermented from grain regardless of its pedigree.

A bowl of dan dan noodles.
Credit: .

What Does Black Vinegar Taste Like?

Chef Lane describes the flavor of black vinegar as “robust, slightly sweet and tangy, with hints of maltiness and a subtle smokiness.” While black vinegar has a similar color to another well-known dark vinegar — balsamic — the maltiness and umami flavor distinctive of black vinegar can be attributed primarily to its grain base, and slow fermentation.

The subtle sweetness of black vinegar is more rich and caramel, rather than fruity. Balsamic vinegar, on the other hand, has a fruity sweetness due to its grape base, and the specific balsa wood vessels in which it is aged. Some sources have likened the flavor of black vinegar to that of a different dark condiment: Worcestershire sauce, which also has a base of fermented barley, but is flavored with additional ingredients.

Black vinegar, however, develops its complex flavor strictly from its fermentation and aging process.

How is Black Vinegar Typically Used in Chinese Cuisine?

You’ve doubtlessly had black vinegar in Chinese dishes regardless of whether you’ve been aware of it, as it is ubiquitous as an ingredient in numerous Chinese preparations and recipes. 

“Black vinegar is commonly used as a dipping sauce for dumplings, adds balance to the richness of soups and braises, and is also a key ingredient in most cold dishes,” Chef Lane says.

Black vinegar is also an excellent counterpoint to spice, according to Chef Lane, providing a deep umami character in addition to its typical acidic function. “We use black vinegar in our most popular noodle dish, Dan Dan noodles,” she says. “Its acidity balances the heat of chile peppers and the richness of the broth perfectly.”

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