Hello, Mellow Black Vinegar

by Caroline Hatchett
Antoinette Bruno
March 2014



Black vinegar is a serious secret sauce with the power to brighten flavors and balance bitterness—all under the radar. "I've had black vinegar in my pantry for 15 years, but not many people use it," says Joe Isidori, 2008 Rising Star and chef of the new Chalk Point Kitchen in Soho.

Isidori compares the traditional Chinese product—most often made by fermenting rice, but sometimes wheat, millet, or sorghum—to an agridulce with its mild sweetness and mellow acidity. Like a Chinese balsamic, the vinegar's dark color and complex spice notes derive from time spent aging. Unlike it's Italian cousin, though, black vinegar sells at Chinatown prices, with a 600-milliliter bottle coming in at a modest $3 or less.

Pork Belly: Parsnip Purée, Farro, Black Vinegar, and Scallions at Ray's and Stark Bar

Pork Belly: Parsnip Purée, Farro, Black Vinegar, and Scallions at Ray's and Stark Bar

Crispy Pig Ear, Coconut Rice, Chinese Sausage, and Avocado at Aviary

Crispy Pig Ear, Coconut Rice, Chinese Sausage, and Avocado at Aviary

Its versatility and low price tag encourage a wide range of uses across cuisine types. At Chalk Point, Isidori finishes chicken pan gravy with black vinegar to serve alongside roasted chicken, Chinese greens, and whipped potatoes. He also uses it to make sour dressings, dress crudos, and enhance braises. "I always like to add vinegar to braises to clean them up a little bit, especially when they're made with heavy spices," says Isidori. "Spices become bitter if you don't balance them, and when you add vinegar to a spice mixture, it helps round it out."

Chef Kris Morningstar of L.A.'s Ray's and Stark Bar transforms black vinegar into a signature sauce, doctoring it with lemon, sugar, and toasted fennel seeds, coriander, Balinese long peppers, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, and black pepper. "It really comes to life with the spices and lemon," he says.

Morningstar gets in a case or two of Koon Chun black vinegar (he won't use any other brand) every few months and makes a big batch of the sauce, bringing the mixture to a light syrup consistency and steeping it one and half hours. He then strains off the solids and stores the sauce back in the original black vinegar bottles.

Morningstar was introduced to the sauce by a visiting sushi chef in 2007, and it's been a staple of his kitchen ever since. "You end up getting this sweet, sour, and kind of medicinally spiced flavor. It goes with lots of fun stuff," says Morningstar, who uses the sauce to braise meats and simply sauce plates for his Mediterranean-leaning menu.

"Most of our food is Mediterranean. This breaks from that a little bit, but black vinegar slides in there without feeling distinctly Asian," he says. The sweet, sour, and spice notes are a natural complement to earthy mushrooms, and Morningstar has paired the sauce with all manner of proteins—fish, pork, beef, chicken. "Right now, I have beef tendon that's braised in [black vinegar sauce]. Beef is a blank vehicle for flavor, and we've done it hot and cold: cooled down and shaved for a salad and served warm and jiggley with texture of cooked fat," he says.

Morningstar's devotion to black vinegar and his sauce runs deep—as would any chef who has found a sauce so simple and integral to his cooking style.

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