A guide to the most divisive and misunderstood denizen of the candy aisle
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, as it alleviates thirst. In India, the god Brahma was purported to be a fan. Today, “in Indian and Middle Eastern markets, you’ll often see a container of dried licorice on the counter which people will chew on,” says Beth Kimmerle, a Chicago-based sensory consultant to candy companies.
I take it there’s more than one type of licorice?
Licorice candy comes not just in different flavors, but also in any shape and texture you can imagine: chewy, gummy, drops, ropes, powdered, crunchy, and runny. When I was a kid growing up in Scandinavia, licorice was a standard category in the candy aisle alongside chocolate and caramels. A sweet licorice fudge called Kick was my favorite, and I preferred my salty licorice as a lozenge with a powder heart — Tyrkisk Peber is a classic example of salmiakki, the Finnish salty licorice. If you were hard-core on the playground you’d go for Hockey Pulver, the powdered salmiakki that you pour into your palm and lick.
I still enjoy these candies, but when I tried Lakrids by Bülow I realized there might be another level to licorice: Lakrids is licorice for adults, ideal for people who also love olives, funky cheeses, and dark chocolate. With licorice, there are always new heights to conquer: while working on this story I discovered Italian pellets that are 100 percent pure licorice. I spat out the first one, but now I can’t stop eating them.
None of this sounds anything like American licorice!
“In the US, there’s no standard of definition for licorice, so you can call something licorice even though you’ve not used the root,” says Kimmerle. American licorice often has added anise, which sets it apart from the European varieties; red licorice like Twizzlers and Red Vines, which is prevalent in the States, doesn’t actually contain any licorice at all.
How did licorice first travel from the East to the West?
It was returning crusaders who brought licorice from the Middle East to parts of Europe, where it became prized for its medicinal properties. “People would use licorice for basically any ailment,” says Kimmerle. When licorice first came England with Dominican monks who grew it in the gardens of their Yorkshire priory, it was used to treat stomach problems and coughs; it eventually became a popular remedy for chest congestion throughout England and Northern Europe.
It was George Dunhill, a pharmacist in the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, who first thought to add a little sugar to the medicinal licorice, and this is how people started eating it as candy. This first crossover into the treat category was the Pontefract Cake, and from there, England developed its own licorice style, the most famous example being Liquorice allsorts, a mixture of firmer licorice candies in a range of flavors and colors.
Carol Wilson, the author of Liquorice: A Cookbook, grew up in Yorkshire, where licorice was a childhood staple. “At the sweetshop you’d ask for a stick of Spanish,” says Wilson — in Yorkshire they called it “Spanish” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, though Wilson claims it’s likely because the monks who brought it to town were Spanish.
Eating medicine as candy — that sounds like it could be dangerous?
Licorice isn’t harmless — too much glycyrrhizin disrupts the body’s sodium and potassium levels and may raise blood pressure. People with hypertension or who are pregnant should be careful not to overdo it. Licorice has even killed people, but it takes a lot, likely several packets a day for weeks or months, if not more.
Can you cook with licorice?
Licorice often appears in Indian and Chinese cooking, but is rarely found in Western recipes. Wilson’s cookbook details various types of pure licorice, from sticks and powders to syrups and pellets. She says it’s a great flavor to add with cinnamon and garlic to pork, or mix with orange and black molasses as a glaze for meat. “Licorice goes really well with fennel and aniseed, which have a very mild licorice flavor themselves, although the plants are not related,” Wilson explains. “It adds a subtle flavor that’s quite intriguing — a sweet herbal taste with a hint of bitterness that makes it unique.”
What’s the story with salmiakki, the super-strong licorice they have in Finland?
Salmiakki is the Finnish word for salty black licorice, which contains no actual salt, just a kick of ammonium chloride. Over the phone from Finland, Jukka Annala, the chairman of the Finnish Salty Liquorice Association, likens salmiakki to “a romantic relationship between salt and sweet in the form of a candy.”
No two people seem to describe licorice the same way, but no one speaks of the black stuff with more reverence than Annala. I quickly realize my question about how to pick a good salty licorice is far too simple for this connoisseur. “The choice depends on the mood. If the need is big, the easiest way to satisfaction is usually salmiakki powder,” Annala says. “This is a simple candy, just licorice and ammonium chloride.” The salmiakki field gets more complex from there, he continues. “They are all so different! There are strong ones and mild ones. If you’re in a certain mood and need a mild and lovely salmiakki, one which has a good texture so you can chew it, there’s molded candy or toffee.”
Wow. But why did the Finns go salty when the rest of the world went sweet?
While all the Nordic countries (plus the Netherlands and northern Germany) enjoy salty licorice, Annala doesn’t know why Finland emerged as the heart of this territory. It seems to be a quirk of culture, perhaps attributable to the Finnish “sisu,” one of those untranslatable words, which means something like “a special kind of strong will.” This might explain why you’d persevere past that first burn of the salmiakki, to find the sweet that hides underneath?
Would I enjoy salmiakki?
Finns enjoy feeding salmiakki to tourists and watching their faces squirm in disgust. “I think it’s because it’s salty, and people expect candy to be sweet — it’s strange. It’s very difficult to start late in life,” Annala says with a laugh. That said, there are Finns who don’t like it either. “It’s true,” he admits. “I know some!”
Is licorice likely to ever truly take off as a crowd favorite?
The mission to bring licorice to the world may need to put salmiakki on the back burner for now. While people increasingly appreciate more challenging flavors like kombucha or strong coffee, Kimmerle thinks we’d need a chef to champion it, or maybe discover some new kind of health benefit, to truly get licorice to take off. Lakrids by Bülow now draws 63 percent of its revenues from outside Denmark, but this progress is driven by its range of chocolate-covered sweet licorice. But whatever gets people in the door is fine with Johan Bülow. “We just want to try and make the world love licorice,” he says.
Assuming that more people do grow to love it, the Finns will be waiting to bring them into their hard-core heart of licorice darkness. “There’s salmiakki ice cream, chewing gum, and vodka too,” says Annala, who’s a fan of the new licorice-filled chocolates that have spread from Iceland into the other salmiakki-loving countries. Who wouldn’t enjoy a chocolate bar with a sweet licorice center, hiding a punch of powdered salmiakki? “There’s so many layers you can run to,” says Annala. “So much drama within one candy!”
Jessica Furseth is a London-based journalist who writes about culture and urbanism. Follow her on Twitter @jessicafurseth.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.