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To the uninitiated, black vinegar might not sound very good. In fact, it lends a complex, deep flavor to all kinds of foods, whether it is used in a marinade, a dipping sauce, or as part of a recipe. Most dark vinegar, which is Chinese in origin, is made from sweet rice and aged in wooden barrels. The best black vinegar depends to a certain degree upon the cook’s taste and purpose, but mass-produced, cheap versions that depend upon sugar and caramel for coloring and flavor rarely have the well-balanced, subtle complexity of better black vinegars.
Chinkiang, a southwestern Chinese province, is considered by cooks in the know to be the source of the best black vinegar. Most Chinkiang-produced vinegar lists the first ingredient as rice; this is one sign of a high-quality black vinegar. The flavor is very deep; many people liken it to balsamic vinegar. Like balsamic, it also finishes with a sweet note.
Black vinegar, like all things mysterious, has gathered quite a number of alternate names over the centuries. It is known variously as brown or black rice vinegar, Chenkong vinegar, and Zhejiang vinegar. Many Asians concoct a healthy drink using black vinegar, claiming a number of health benefits.
Like a number of other fermented foods, research indicates that black rice vinegar may fight free radicals and ultimately cancer because it is rich in antioxidants. The acetic acid in black rice vinegar supports the reduction of glucose and lowers cholesterol, which contributes to atherosclerosis, strokes, and coronary heart disease. The presence of a number of amino acids in black rice vinegar contributes to a balanced pH as well.
Black rice vinegar is much more deeply flavored that clear rice vinegar, distilled vinegar, and many other types. Its complex flavor makes it a good choice for a dipping sauce. Many cooks brush it on braising meat. It is also commonly used in stir-fries.
One simple and delicious way to use black vinegar is in a low-fat cucumber side dish. Cucumber that has been cut into disks or sliced the long way and marinated for about 15 minutes in black vinegar and sesame oil retain their crunch and gain flavor. Another Asian favorite is Szechwan eggplant stir-fried with soy sauce and black rice vinegar.
Serious cooks might want to try a few different types of black rice vinegar before deciding upon a favorite because a multitude of versions result from a range of ingredients. Many cooks keep a bottle of very dark rice vinegar, true black in color, as well as a lighter version that appears closer to red than black. Some dishes might respond better to one type of vinegar or another.