All About Licorice

February 26, 2010 at 8:25 am 8 comments

close-up of rolls of liquorices

First off, Twizzlers aren’t really licorice. In fact, many of the candy we think of as “licorice flavor” is in fact flavored with anise. But real licorice, from the root of the licorice plant, is quite amazing stuff. In a recent post, I described the multitudes of licorice candies that were popular in the early 1900s. And licorice itself played an important part in many American industries in the first half of the twentieth century.

A little science: glycyrrhizin is the name of the sweet substance in licorice root. This chemical, found in significant levels only in the root of the licorice plant, is fifty times as sweet as sugar. That’s a lot of sweet!

But the virtues of licorice are not just in the sweetness. Licorice root is a favorite with herbalists today, and boasts a medicinal history going back thousands of years. Licorice root has been used for eons as a health tonic, as a blood purifier, as a means of relief from sore throat and internal inflammations. And it isn’t just good for your insides. Mixed with honey, licorice has been used as a healer of sores and wounds.

Don’t think it’s just the health-foody types who believe in the healing power of licorice. Modern medical researchers are documenting its effects on the body. Did you know licorice (the real stuff) can raise your blood pressure? Of course, you should consult your doctor if you have questions about the medical effects of licorice. But you can safely consult Candy Professor for information about the history of uses of licorice in confectionery and elsewhere.

By the 1930s, U.S. industry was importing some 35,000 tons of licorice root per year, for use in a wide variety of industries. Attempts to grow licorice domestically were unsuccessful, so most licorice root was imported from Spain and Italy where it was cultivated commercially.

The first step in processing the licorice was to shred the roots. Then a process of grinding and sifting and grinding would yield the first product: powdered licorice root, to be used in pharmaceutical prepartions. The coarse remainder would be bathed in a solution, which produced a liquid extract. This second extraction would be reduced to a syrup or paste to form the base needed for candy making, and also for flavoring tobacco.

But they weren’t finished yet. After candy, cigars, and drugs had taken what they needed, the brewers had a turn. Yes, in the olden days, beer makers would add licorice to their brew to give it a foamy head. And the foaming properties of licorice extract suggested yet another use: fire extinguishers. Licorice extinguishers, which formed an oxygen-free foam, became important in fighting oil fires in the days before chemical extinguishers.

At last, there was nothing left of the licorice root but stringy fibers. These were not wasted either. The fiber was dried and made into insulating wall and box board. So the box your licorice candy was packaged in might also be made of licorice!

References: Percy A. Housemna and H. T. Lacey, “The Licorice Root in Industry,” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 1929, 21 (10), pp 915–917; “Licorice Industry Reaches Sixtieth Year in America,” New York Times 26 January 1930.

Entry filed under: Candy Making, Ingredients, Medicine. Tags: , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark D.  |  February 26, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    My favorite black licorice is Kookaburra, I never realized how it was made or from what part of the plant. Thanks for the article, it was informing, as always!

    Reply
    • 2. CandyProfessor  |  February 26, 2010 at 5:39 pm

      Kookaburra, eh? Have to try it! I have the impression that much U.S. “licorice” actually is not, but I haven’t really done much investigating. I see bewildering variety in import shops, much more popular in Europe than here. It is pretty amazing how such a popular candy a century ago has sort of drifted to the edges, I can’t remember the last time I saw a licorice rope outside of Cracker Barrel. Maybe sometime you’ll be inspired to do a comparative tasting of the sort of “licorices” one commonly finds?

      Reply
  • 3. Javid  |  March 8, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Hi!
    I am about to start my own business with importing licorice roots and then purify it and try to sell the powder. What I would like to know, if you can, if there is a good method to purify and separate the extract of licorice. In laboratorium they use different kind of methods which are quiet expensive.

    Reply
    • 4. CandyProfessor  |  March 8, 2010 at 7:38 am

      Sorry, Javid, the actual mechanics are way outside my area of expertise. But good luck with your business!

      Reply
  • 5. Gail  |  October 27, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Why did (black) licorice fade in popularity in the U.S. but is still so loved in Northern Europe? I was in heaven in Denmark, where candy shops sell lots of different kinds of black, salty licorice. Just curious, and wishing licorice was more popular here…

    Reply
    • 6. Candy Professor  |  October 27, 2010 at 9:41 am

      I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it coincides with the decline of penny candy in the 1940s, as the variety of shapes was one of the things that made licorice such a popular children’s candy. As penny candy, you could have one of this one and one of that one and play with them. Once candy is mostly sold in bigger packages, then you have to commit to one bag of all the same, which takes away part of the fun of licorice.

      I guess that doesn’t really address the flavor issue, but flavors do come in and out of fashion. It is so interesting to discover how tastes do change over time, and how different countries and regions have such different flavor preferences. I just tried Choward’s Violet Candy recently, and it tastes to me just like soap! But in the early 1900s violet was a very popular flavor. And is still in Britain, I think. As for licorice, Jelly Belly tells me the black licorice beans are their most popular flavor!

      Reply
  • 7. hamid rahman  |  February 20, 2011 at 6:54 am

    sir
    i am afghan based company and exporting licorice roots i want to find the importers in USA and canada if you can guide me or know any company who is importing licorice roots thanks.

    you can contact me at ruccl.company @gmail.com

    Reply
  • 8. just wondering  |  December 9, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    i hope u can tell me…. i have a recipe that was my grandmothers is about 90 to 100 yrs old anyway it calls for 5c horehound tea and 5 c licorice and 4 c rock candy do u by any chance know how much in cups or tablespoons or whatever this is… i would like to create this recipe for modern times and i am finding nothing on google… thank you for your time …. OOOO and yes Kukaburra licorice is the best.. makes the states licorice taste like sugar water :

    Reply

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

Samira Kawash, PhD
Professor Emerita,
Rutgers University

(C) Samira Kawash

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