Turn To Black Vinegar To Give Desserts An Umami Boost

It's exciting enough to pop into your favorite Chinese restaurant and spy a bottle of black vinegar on your table (pork and chive bao, here we come). But if you haven't been using the condiment in your desserts, it might be time to reevaluate your confectionery pantry.

MSG might be the go-to ingredient for quickly bringing out umami flavor, but when you're searching for a little more depth, black vinegar is the way to go. It's made through the process of fermentation. Yeast is combined with a grain (typically wheat, barley, sorghum, or brown rice) and becomes ethanol alcohol; from there, the active bacteria transform the ethanol into acetic acid, aka the sharp acidic pang that first hits the palate when you taste a spoonful of straight-up vinegar. Black vinegar is aged for at least six months, but the longer it matures, the deeper its flavors become and the darker its hue. (The black color comes from the Maillard reaction.)

So why does it work for your desserts? Traditionally, black vinegar is used to season meats like ribs or pork chops or as a dipping sauce for dumplings. But the Chinese vinegar is less tart than sherry vinegar and less sweet than balsamic, like a punchier soy sauce — and its pungent, aromatic profile might be the secret ingredient you've been missing to elevate a predictable dessert into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Black is the new black

As with any dish, the key to creating a compelling dessert is balance — meaning you need to know your ingredients. For instance, rice wine vinegar can be used to replace a citrus element in desserts. You can use balsamic vinegar in a cocktail. Black vinegar totes idiosyncratic hints of licorice and malt for a funky, earthy, mouthwatering flavor bomb. When utilized in your favorite desserts, black vinegar lends a dimensional flavor that's simultaneously sweet, tart, and strongly umami-forward. Its natural sugar instantly adds richness, but it's offset by a very welcome hit of acidity. Play up its natural profile and let the condiment shine.

Not sure where to start? You could stir black vinegar into a honey sauce to drizzle over cheesecake or pair it with miso paste for a batch of sweet-savory brown butter brownies. Whip up a batch of crispy black vinegar peanut butter cookies. For a complex umami icing, combine black vinegar, Ovaltine, and a little vanilla extract. Roast some Anjou pears until lightly caramelized and drizzle with warmed black vinegar rather than balsamic. If you're feeling fancy, wow your dinner party guests and garnish bright yellow, custardy, already-acidic lemon posset with a few drops of black vinegar. It'll do as much for richness and depth of flavor as it will for aesthetics.