Ingredient Spotlight: Fermented Black Beans

We were delighted to see Mark Bittman's spotlight on fermented black beans in the New York Times Dining section. We have a thing for these tiny salted soybeans, and it was great to see them brought front and center. Here's what we know about fermented black beans.

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Fermented black beans are not the black beans you find in Latin American cooking; they are actually soybeans - the same as in miso, tofu, and soy sauce. They are an umami powerhouse already - full of that savory, lingering taste that adds depth to any food it touches.

These beans are packed in salt and fermented for a long time. The salt and fermentation add yet more layers of umami and complexity to their flavor, along with a slight bitterness and musky, funky scent.

The beans are very good at adding depth and power to meatless dishes, and they're often paired with garlic to form the flavor base in Chinese dishes.

You can find fermented black beans at nearly any Asian or Chinese grocery. Look for them in small plastic sacks with tiny shriveled beans inside. The sacks are lumpy, soft, and often dusted with the red powdery residue of the beans.

There were a couple things that surprised us in Bittman's piece:

- He mentioned soaking the beans in wine or broth the way we would soak dried fruit or tomatoes. We have never done this but will try it now.

- He also implied that these are stored in the fridge. We've never seen them stored in the fridge; they come in small plastic bags. We leave ours tightly wrapped up in a dark cupboard with our bulk spices and the beans seem to stay just as soft and salty as when we bought them. Does anyone know any differently, though? Ours seem to keep indefinitely.

Here are two recipes that we enjoy with fermented black beans.

Ma Po Tofu
Spicy Broccoli Tofu Stir-Fry

(Images: Faith Durand)

Originally posted March 27, 2008.

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