Candy’s Black Sheep

Salty, medicinal black licorice won’t satisfy
your sweet tooth, but you might like it anyway.

You have to ask: Do you like black licorice? The answer will indicate whether you’re among friends before breaking out the black vines. It’s the dark secret of the pantry.

Black-licorice-lovers quickly learn that they are in the minority. Never give the candy as a gift, and certainly don’t hand it out at Halloween. But, with its complex aniselike flavor and subtle cool-and-hot sensations, black licorice is not just appreciated by Northern Europeans and old people.

“Licorice has become very hot!” says Eilene Cohen of Economy Candy, a 70-year-old candy emporium in New York City’s Lower East Side. Due to higher demand, the store has added many new brands over the past two years, including 10 to 12 varieties of Dutch licorice just in the past two months. “Before, all we had was bites and shoelaces,” Cohen says. Susan Fussell, senior director of communications at the National Confectioners Association, says that licorice sales are up. Though people are buying more candy in general (an increase of 2.9 percent in the past year), Fussell points out that “sales of licorice (which does include red licorice) are up 3.7 percent.”

Today’s taste in candy runs toward the sweet and chocolaty or sweet and fruity—like red licorice, which is not licorice at all but an artificially flavored and highly sweetened Doppelgänger, imitating the original’s shape but not its flavor. Black licorice is flavored with extract of licorice root, used as a remedy for sore throat and cough in ancient Rome, Egypt, and China. The root has a medicinal, herbal flavor and contains a compound called glycyrrhizin that gives it a bit of natural sweetness.

To make licorice candy, the root’s extract is blended with salt or a sweetener (sugar, molasses, or honey) to soften its flavor. Throughout Northern Europe, where licorice candy was invented, the preferred style is very dense and salty, more lozengelike than candy. Most often the saltiness comes from ammonium chloride or salmiak, a common ingredient in cough medicine, which lends a slightly ammonialike flavor to the traditional styles. Today’s salty varieties range greatly, from chewy candies with only a hint of salt such as Danish Heksehyl Zoet, to dense, mouth-puckering salt bombs like the infamous Dubbel Zout from Holland (a style not favored much by American palates; see our notes on tasting).

The British town of Pontefract claims to be the birthplace of the sweeter style. In 1760 a pharmacist, trying to make the cough medicine produced from licorice root more palatable, added sugar. Sweetener became a common addition in all licorice-producing countries. This variety, known as the Pontefract Cake, is still available today and was a favorite among the CHOW staff. The town hosts the Pontefract Liquorice Festival every summer.

Elizabeth Erlandson of Licorice International in Lincoln, Nebraska, says that of the 3,000 customers LI sells to each month, most are nostalgia seekers: first- or second-generation immigrants or people looking for the candy of their childhoods. Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak, points out that the candy industry has no vested interest in marketing a confection like black licorice that doesn’t appeal to kids. But adults, with a more sophisticated palate, often find they like licorice once they’ve tried it (or tried it again).

Many of Erlandson’s customers are young people searching for a gift for a licorice-loving parent, but “once they come into the store and start tasting, they discover that they like it too.” They usually end up buying for themselves and become regular customers. The store has recently added 20 new brands to its stock, bringing the grand total of licorice products to 160, up from 118 in 2004.

Caitlin Williams had a similar experience planning Miette Confiserie, her candy shop in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. Before opening, she began asking acquaintances which items to stock. She found that there was an overwhelming demand for black licorice. “It’s funny,” she says, “everyone seemed to be a black licorice fan but thought that they’re the only one, like it’s their thing. But in fact black licorice had a huge following.” As a result, nearly an entire wall of her shop sports an international selection of the stuff, ranging from very soft and chewy to quite tacky and dense, and extremely salty to toothache-inducing sweet.

Licorice has even reached the highest levels of fine dining, paired with squab, watermelon, and foie gras at Alinea in Chicago, as well as appearing on the pastry menus at both Per Se and wd-50 in New York City. “I love it because besides being flavor, it’s a sensation,” says Pastry Chef Alex Stupak of wd-50, who grates a concentrated form of licorice paste over avocado purée in his dessert called Soft Chocolate, Avocado, Licorice, Lime. Sébastien Rouxel, pastry chef at Per Se, mixes extract into a batter that is baked, then ground, to create a powder for Guava Sorbet with Crème de Yaourt Frais, Black Licorice Dust, and Pomegranate Nuage.

Both pastry chefs have been using black licorice for a while, and though they agree that many people don’t like licorice on its own, they are confident that using it in desserts is not taboo. Stupak even goes so far as to include licorice in the only chocolate dessert on his menu. He calls it a “daring move” for what has long been considered a “mostly maligned flavor.” Since many people only order “whatever’s chocolate” from a menu, he says, doing this forces those who generally don’t like licorice to eat it. What do they say afterward? Most say “it’s perfect.”

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