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Liquorice is a concentrated extract of the liquorice plant. The use of liquorice dates to ancient times; liquorice roots were for example found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (1358 BC). The ancient Romans and Greeks used liquorice for medicinal uses, such as in coughing syrups or against stomach ulcers. The use of liquorice in candies is a more recent use
Liquorice is found in a wide variety of liquorice candies. Liquorice is very popular in the UK (typically known as Ďallsorts'), Scandinavia, Finland, Northern Germany and especially in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands consumption is approximately 2 kg/person/year.
English Allsorts (Source)
In the Netherlands and Scandinavia salty liquorice (flavoured with salt or ammoniumchloride) is very popular. These salty candies are not very appreciated in other parts of the world.
In Iceland liquorice candies are often covered with milk chocolate.
Liquorice is popular in Italy, particularly in the South, in its natural form. The root of the plant is simply dug up, washed and chewed as mouth-freshener. Throughout Italy unsweetened liquorice is consumed in the form of small black pieces made only from 100% pure liquorice extract; the taste is bitter and intense.
Chinese cuisine uses liquorice as a culinary spice for savoury foods. It is often employed to flavour broths and foods simmered in soy sauce.
Liquorice is also very popular in Syria where it is sold as a drink.
Additionally, liquorice is found in some soft drinks (such as root beer), and is in some herbal teas where it provides a sweet aftertaste. The flavour is common in medicines to disguise unpleasant flavours and it is widely used to flavour cigarettes.
Liquorice is derived from the root of the liquorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra (Leguminosae). This is a small shrub (up to 1 m in height) native to the Mediterranean and cultivated in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy.
Glycyrrhiza glabra (Source)
Very little commercial liquorice is grown in North America, where it is replaced by a related native species, American Licorice (G. lepidota), which has similar uses. In northern China, G. uralensis is grown and is medicinally equivalent to G. glabra.
The sweet component of liquorice roots is glycyrrhizin or glycyrrhizinic acid. Glycyrrhizin is a sweetener, with a sweetness of about 50 times the sweetness of sugar. It has a typical aftertaste, which limits its use.
Liquorice roots (Source)
The liquorice plants are dug out in summer. The roots can be up to 4 m in length. When the plant is dug up, part of the roots is cut off. The plant is replanted and will continue to grow.
The roots that are cut off are dried in the sun to avoid the growth of moulds. Afterwards the dry roots are ground, frayed and made to pulp together with water. This pulp is filtered and concentrated. The concentrated extract is poured into blocks and dried. The final product is appropriately called block liquorice.
Block liquorice is exported to candy, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies for further use.
To process block liquorice it is dissolved in warm water. As block liquorice is approximately 50 times more sweet than granulated sugar, only a little bit is needed. The final percentage of block liquorice in most liquorice candy is 3-5%.
To make liquorice candies, first the other ingredients, such as a sweetening agent (sugar, glucose/fructose syrup, honey or a sweetener), and thickening agents (traditionally gum Arabic, nowadays mainly modified starch, sometimes gelatine), are thoroughly mixed.
After the mixing the mixture is heated rapidly to 135 °C, which causes the starch to gelatinise. This results in a soft-hard structure. The hot mixture is pressed under high pressure through a maze or small tube to homogenize. Finally the mixture is placed in a vacuum to remove air bubbles.
After partially cooling down, the other ingredients are added, such as block liquorice, colour and flavours (anise, menthol, eucalyptus). For salty liquorice salt or ammoniumchloride are added. This mixture is called the dough, as it resembles normal bread dough in structure and viscosity.
When the ingredients are thoroughly mixed the liquorice candies can be formed. The first step is to make the shapes. Making the shapes starts by sprinkling an even layer of 1-2 cm thick corn starch powder on a plate. On this powder a hard mould with candy shapes is pushed so that the shape of these candies is put into the flour. Corn starch has the capacity to absorb liquid without clumping. Besides that, it prevents a too fast hardening of the liquorice, which is not wanted. Another advantage is that after the candies are dried they can be easily taken out of the powder. After this the corn starch can be used again.
The viscous warm liquorice is poured into the shapes by a dosing machine. The filled plates are stacked up to several meters high and transported to a conditioning room.
The plates are kept 36 hours in this room at 65 °C to harden. Lower temperatures would harden the liquorice too fast, which results in cracking.
After conditioning the flour is removed by shaking the candies on a sieve. The powder falls through the sieve, the dull grey candies remain. The last flour is removed by a blower. As dull grey liquorice is not wanted, the candies are placed in a rotating drum together with a brightener. This brightener is either beeswax or a vegetable oil. By rotating a thin equal layer of the brightener is formed on the candies.
Finally the now shiny black candies are further cooled for 1-2 days at 18-20 °C and packed.
Due to the high percentage of sugar and because of this a low aw (water activity), the candies have microbiologically an unlimited shelf life. However, liquorice can dry out and lose flavour unless stored in a closed package. In a closed package the storage life of liquorice is more than a year.