Less sweet than balsamic but with more depth than white wine vinegar, black vinegar is a staple in Chinese cuisine. Here’s why, plus how you should use it in your cooking.
Hailing from a town in the Eastern part of China called Zhenjiang, Chinkiang vinegar (also called “black vinegar” or “Chinese brown rice vinegar”) is a staple of Chinese cuisine, and it’s worth having in your pantry.
Americans may have encountered black vinegar on the table at a Chinese restaurant, or alongside their soup dumplings (called xiao long bao in China) in a small bowl flecked with shredded ginger. Dark, unctuous, and lightly acidic, it makes an ideal foil for fatty, plush dumplings, and it’s a handy staple to have for homemade Chinese cookery.
To find it, poke around a large gourmet grocery store or an Asian market; a bottle labeled “Chinkiang vinegar” with a bright-yellow label is the one you’ll most commonly spy. As Fuchsia Dunlop notes in the excellent cookbook Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, “the best is made from fermented glutinous rice with charred rice used to give a deep brown color,” but some supermarkets will also have a more generic brown rice vinegar.
Hannah Cheng, who co-owns and cooks alongside her sister Marian at Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings in New York City, uses Chinkiang black vinegar every single day. “It’s a great way to add acid to compliment dishes that have a soy sauce base,” she says. The sisters also use it to “brighten” stir-fries and hot dishes, such as “spicy chili noodles that have pickled cabbage, cilantro, scallions, and chile oil.”
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Cheng likes its subtlety and earthiness, distinguishing it from, say, a Champagne vinegar by noting that the latter “hits you higher in the nose—I don’t know that that’s a technical term, but that’s the feeling I get.” (Dunlop also writes about the vinegar’s “mellow, complex flavor and a relatively light acidity.”)
Although you’ll see some recipes call for balsamic vinegar as a substitute, know that balsamic tends to be sweeter; it’s definitely a different flavor. Often soy and black vinegar will mingle in a sauce, and black vinegar is typically used as a finisher as opposed to a starting flavor (a fairly classic use of acid in hot food). Occasionally, though, you’ll see it used to simmer or marinate a fatty meat, as in this five-spice pork dish. More often, it’ll make cameos in dipping sauces for homemade scallion pancakes (alongside oyster sauce and sweet soy), or as a last touch, as in these stir-fried green beans.
So pick up an inexpensive bottle if you spy one, as it’s worth experimenting with for any noodle, rice, or Asian dish you’re dreaming up at home.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.