There are thousands of kinds of candies in the world, but few treats are as polarizing as licorice. People seem to either love it or hate it. For those who love black licorice, the pungent, chewy candy is a savory retreat from the fruity sweet varieties. But to those who aren’t licorice fans, the overpowering anise-like bitterness isn’t all that appetizing.
For a long time, I was part of the latter group, fond of the cherry flavored red shoelace variety but not of the fragrant, sweet and sometimes salty licorice candies. But it was the fandom around the candy world’s most contentious contender that ultimately piqued my interest. And when the fandom included my husband, a man with a flavor palate that is the complete opposite of my own, I had to know what makes licorice so special.
In Northern Europe, where millions of kilograms of licorice are consumed each year, there are several licorice events, picnics, and festivals that attract thousands of enthusiasts. In Calabria, Italy, where Calabrian licorice has been cultivated for centuries, the crop is considered so culturally significant that it has been awarded a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).
In the places where licorice is loved it is really loved, and to understand how licorice became the candy craze that it is today, I had to dig into its roots. The more I learned of its history, the more I began to appreciate licorice not just as a candy, but as an ingredient that can be used in a multitude of ways to give dishes a fragrant, sweet-savory aroma.
The Roots of Licorice
Licorice is a plant native to a wide swath of land with herbaceous roots securely planted from Western Asia all the way to Northern Africa and Southern Europe. Though the licorice plant blooms with violet and pale blue flowers and produces beans, it’s the woody, brownish-yellow roots where we extract licorice’s intense flavor.
Throughout history, civilizations have found numerous uses for licorice. In Hindu religious texts, the god Brahma called licorice the “elixir of life”. The powerful root was also used in religious ceremonies in ancient China, and King Tut loved licorice so much that licorice roots were among the many treasures with which he was buried. In addition to religious uses, the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese used licorice root for medicinal purposes more so than culinary purposes. They considered it a remedy for respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments, as well as an aid to the cardiovascular system. Licorice’s associations with medicine still lingers on to this day, not as an active ingredient but as a flavor additive that helps mask the taste of other potent ingredients.
Licorice’s popularity expanded across Europe during the 11th Century when Crusaders brought licorice roots back from the Mediterranean. Farmers from Southern Italy through Germany and north to England cultivated the plant. At the time, it was predominantly used for its therapeutic properties in the form of lozenges and tea.
It’s not clear exactly when licorice was introduced to the world of confectionery, but the licorice candy that is closest to that of which we have today first appeared in 1760. In the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, England, an apothecary chemist by the name of George Dunhill added sugar to licorice, creating a chewy non-medicinal sweet that is very similar to the licorice candies that we know of today. These “Pontefract cakes” were small round disks stamped with an image of the Pontefract Castle.
Northern Europe’s Salmiakki Boom
By the 1930’s, the licorice craze reached Finland where ammonium chloride was added. Pharmacists believed that adding the salty compound could help break down mucus. What was an attempt to create the ultimate cold medicine ended up becoming salmiakki, one of Northern Europe’s most popular candies.
From there, licorice’s influence proliferated, and not just as an enjoyable sweet but also as an economic and industrial force. There are hundreds of varieties of licorice sweets in the form of candies, chocolates, drinks and even distilled into spirits. In the Netherlands, more than 20% of all candy sold is licorice and they consume over 4 pounds per person per year. In 2011, the Netherland’s licorice sales were valued at over $185 million.
Over in Finland, Fazer Confectionery & Fazer Finland’s biggest salty licorice producer, Tyrkisk Peber, makes around 1 million kilograms of salty licorice per year with roughly 60% of that being exported to other Nordic countries.
Finland is also home to the Finnish Salty Liquorice Association, a non-profit consumer group for salmiakki enthusiasts. Established in 1997, the organization hosts two annual events. The first is Salmiakkigaala, where the international Salmiakki Finlandia Award for the best candy of the year is announced. “The Salmiakkigaala’s original mission was to celebrate this lovely black candy once a year with die-hard salmiakki fans gathered in a bar or restaurant in Helsinki,” says Jukka Annala, chairman of the Finnish Salty Liquorice Association. Since 1997, the organization has grown out of just a casual bar gathering and has turned into a full-blown gala with a buffet table filled with kilos of salmiakki products.
The second event that the Finish Salty Liquorice Association hosts is the Salmiakkipicnic, an annual picnic held outside of Helsinki. The picnic attracts a smaller, more intimate crowd of 50 people versus the 150 people who usually attend the Salmiakkigaala. The fanfare over licorice extends beyond Finland’s borders to Sweden and Denmark, as well, where other events are held each year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has postponed these beloved events, but that hasn’t stopped salmiakki fans from enjoying their favorite treat. According to Fazer Confectionery & Fazer Finland, Nordic countries consumed an estimated 17-20 million kilograms of licorice last year.
Thinking of Licorice Beyond Candy
From King Tut’s tomb to the Finnish Salty Liquorice Association, civilizations have been singing the praises of licorice for millennia. Literally. “There’s even a house band playing jazzy tunes like ‘The Alphabets of Salmiakki’ and ‘The Salmiakki Finlandia Hymn,’” says Annala, describing how there are actual musical numbers about salmiakki that are performed at the Salmiakkigaala.
In trying to change my own tune about licorice, I found that it was all about perspective. The best way to change the way I thought about licorice was to change what I expected from it. It’s easy to be unpleasantly surprised when you’re offered candy, assuming that you’d get a sweet treat only to receive a dark piece of intensely anise-flavored licorice. If you’ve got a sweet tooth and love conventional candies like chocolate, fruit gummies, or subtle sweets like vanilla, then don’t expect licorice to satisfy those cravings. Instead, think of licorice as the ultimate savory enhancement; A food that you enjoy when you’re in the mood for something earthy, something substantial, or something a bit umami with a touch of semi-sweet bitterness. The best path forward with this approach is by thinking of licorice as an ingredient instead of a candy.
Incorporating licorice into your baking and cooking is a game-changer. Instead of taking front stage as an overpowering flavor, licorice compliments the other sensations in the dish, adding and sometimes enhancing the dish’s savory profile. The easiest way to use licorice in the kitchen is with licorice root powder, a soft powder with a lightly golden hue.
“The traditional way of using licorice is baking cakes,” says Liisa Eerola, Vice President, Communications of Fazer Confectionery & Fazer Finland. “Classic combinations are licorice and raspberry or white chocolate and licorice. Fazer also uses licorice in baking bread. We have combined the licorice in a traditional sweet rye loaf. You can also make jam out of licorice,” says Eerola.
Licorice’s woodsy, molasses aromas bring a depth of flavor to baking. Just as it does with candy, licorice pairs perfectly with chocolate, balancing its bitterness, and brings out the tartness of fruits and berries. When baked in rye bread, both the rye and the licorice harmonize with herbaceous notes of anise. A little goes a long way, but add a tablespoon or two to your chocolate chip cookies, brownies, or cakes and you’ll have a sweet and savory dessert that will change the minds of even the most stubborn of licorice naysayers.
Just as licorice is transformative to baking, adding it to your cooking is revelatory. Powder works here too, but licorice tea is just as good to drink as it is to cook with. Replace chicken stock with licorice tea for more of a savory flavor profile or use it to cook rice to give your grains an earthy taste.
Licorice, whether in the form of a root, powder, or tea, can bring nuanced flavors into your kitchen. It complements cooking in a multitude of ways, whether you’re baking cakes, braising meats, or slowly simmering stews. I’m still not the biggest fan of licorice candies, and though I gave salmiakki an honest try, it’s still a bit too salty for my personal tastes. But given the creative freedom to experiment with it in other ways in my kitchen, I’ve come to enjoy licorice’s limitless possibilities.