Food & Drink

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Licorice

What does licorice taste like? For me it’s sweet, earthy, herbal, sharp, wild, and dark, with a whole world opening up inside that flavor. But when I bite into some of the salty licorice that Scandinavians love, there’s a whole other dimension: the saltiness (which isn’t actually salt at all, but ammonium chloride) brings all the other flavors into balance, like an orchestra rising to a perfect hum.

Do people talk like this about any other candy? The licorice discourse is more like those around durian or Marmite, foods that have strong, pungent flavors that people either love or hate. With licorice there’s always another frontier to explore and discuss. So what’s the deal with this oddball of the candy aisle?

What is licorice, exactly?

“Licorice can be very different things. It’s a black confectionery, but licorice is really a root,” says Johan Bülow, who started the gourmet licorice company Lakrids by Bülow on the Danish island of Bornholm 14 years ago. “Licorice is a very sweet flavor. It has a little bit of tobacco, and there’s a metallic flavor. It’s very earthy,” Bülow adds, sounding like he’s describing a fine wine.

How is licorice candy made?

It all starts with the licorice root, which looks like a plain old twig in its dried form. “We make extracts from this root, and that’s the real taste of licorice,” says Bülow. While you want to get high-quality root that’s freshly dried and has a good flavor, other ingredients matter too: you need starch (rice flour, in Bülow’s case) and a sweetener (he uses molasses, which also differs significantly in flavor depending on where it’s from). “We mix the ingredients in a 100-kilo tank and heat it up,” Bülow explains. “We force it through a pump before extruding it into long ropes, and cutting them.” His company also makes licorice the traditional way by boiling it in an open vat for four hours, reducing it like a sauce before it’s hand-stretched. “That gives the licorice a unique flavor, but maybe even more importantly, a very unique texture,” says Bülow.

So where do you find these licorice roots?

The licorice plant — glycyrrhiza glabra — is a perennial herb in the legume family that grows wild pretty much anywhere warm enough. Typically sourced to the West from the Middle East, it’s 50 times sweeter than sugar. The word licorice comes from “glukos riza,” the Greek for sweet root. Bülow gushes over the memory of eating the fresh root in Georgia: “It was fresh and full of water, with a taste that was absolutely amazing. Straight from the earth. It just gave you something.”

When did people start eating licorice?

The use of licorice can be traced far back through human history. In ancient China, licorice was used in religious ceremonies, while the Egyptian king Tutankhamun was buried with it. Julius Caesar would give licorice to his troops to eat while they marched,

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