The Bauty Of Balsamic


Joined Apr 4, 2000
The beauty of balsamic
By Anne Willan Special to The Washington Post

A kitchen without balsamic vinegar is hard to imagine. Yet barely 15 years ago, balsamic was an obscure Italian ingredient, prized by cognoscenti but little noticed outside its native province of Emilia Romagna. Now trendy chefs scatter it on anything from abalone to zebra, far too much in my opinion. Let's be up front: a little balsamic is a blessing, an overdose can be fatal to any ingredient.

So where does balsamic vinegar do best? I think of it first as a splendid seasoning, adding inimitable depth of taste to marinades for fish and poultry, and to grilled vegetables such as eggplant and bell peppers. In principle, balsamic vinegar will do well wherever a touch of sweetness is welcome. Onion or leek confit flavored with balsamic has become classic, as has the dash of balsamic in a tomato-and-mozzarella insalata caprese.

We all think of pears with blue cheese, but in Italy pears with well-aged parmesan and a few drops of the very best balsamic are the traditional combination to end a meal.

Notice I say the very best. Fine balsamic, aged 25 years or more, can be sipped from the glass like port. (The name comes from "balsam," the plant resin that is rubbed on the skin as medicinal balm.) Ripe strawberries have a particular affinity for the dense, aromatic taste of balsamic, and I personally think that a freshly picked heirloom tomato, its acid and sweetness intensified with a sprinkling of the best balsamic, can be sublime.

As a key ingredient in vinaigrette dressing, balsamic pairs particularly well with olive, walnut or hazelnut oils. Olive oil-balsamic vinaigrette is outstanding with lobster and scallops, globe artichokes and asparagus. A nut oil and balsamic dressing does well with winter vegetables such as carrots, turnips, squash and sweet potatoes, as well as cold weather greens such as frisee, radicchio and Belgian endive. It is with delicate summer lettuces that I think a balsamic vinaigrette is too heavy, but by no means would everyone agree.

Only a tiny proportion of balsamic production is the real thing. Less than 3,000 gallons of genuine Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale are released each year, all of it made in Modena, a historic town just west of Bologna, or in nearby Reggio Emilia. Traditizionale is made from freshly pressed juice ("must") of the Trebbiano grape that is boiled down by more than half to a dark syrup laden with sugar, which leads to the distinctive sweetness of the finished vinegar. The syrup is transferred to oak casks to ferment in the open air and then starts the long evaporation and aging process that makes artisan balsamic vinegar unique.

Over the years the vinegar mellows and intensifies by evaporation as it is transferred to ever-smaller casks of various woods, ending with one of juniper. Measure for measure, prices of the best balsamic match those of a top Bordeaux or pinot noir wine. When buying balsamic, the key word on the label is tradizionale, the guarantee that it was made and aged in Modena by traditional methods. Balsamic vinegar does not deteriorate after opening as oxygen is part of the aging process, so treasure your best bottle and use it on special occasions. To subject such nectar to heat would be an insult.

Happily for us cooks, more modest and affordable everyday versions of balsamic vinegar, costing $20 and up, are also made in Modena and elsewhere. These are the vinegars that are so valuable as marinades, as flavorings in sauces and dressings and that can be simmered a short time without serious damage to their character. There are a lot of bad balsamics out there, too, at their worst made simply of white vinegar and caramelized brown sugar. On the whole you get what you pay for, so be sure to read the label.

All those sweet-sour recipes for duck and pork can be adapted to make good use of a moderately priced balsamic vinegar, as can delicious dark sauces for quail, dove, wild duck and venison. Somewhat to my surprise, balsamic vinegar is a great substitute for Marsala with veal scaloppini and saltimbocca.

Ten years ago, I witnessed a classic exchange. Italian cooking expert Lynne Rosetto Kasper was giving an impromptu survey of balsamic vinegar to several dozen fellow food writers who were watching Julia Child and me cook up some salmon for lunch. Lynne is an enthusiast, and as two minutes stretched to five, the pan began to smoke. The balsamic was burning! A cry came from Julia: "You'll have to stop talking, we're here to cook." Andiamo!

Pears with parmesan

Allow a plump, ripe pear per person. Shortly before serving, halve the pear, scoop out core and stem, and cut each half into quarters. Set the quarters on a serving plate and drizzle with about a teaspoon of good balsamic vinegar. Top with a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper and three to four curls of thinly shaved parmesan cheese, cut from a block that is not too dry.

Balsamic vinaigrette

Classic proportions for vinaigrette dressing are one part vinegar to three parts oil, with seasoning of salt, pepper and Dijon-style mustard (a teaspoonful of mustard for every half cup of dressing is typical). However, the flavor of balsamic vinegar is intense, and with olive oil or a light vegetable oil, I would recommend proportions of one part vinegar to four or five of oil. With the fragrance of nut oils such as walnut and hazelnut the balance changes back again, possibly to one of balsamic, three of oil. Other flavorings for a balsamic vinaigrette might include herbs (chives and sage are particularly good), finely chopped fresh ginger root or shallot, but I find garlic incompatible with the vinegar's sweetness. It is all a question of adjusting the finished dressing to your taste, bearing in mind what it will accompany.

Casanova's chocolate sauce
Makes 1 ½ cups sauce to serve 4 to 6

Try this sauce with poached pears or as a fondue for dipping strawberries, bananas or biscotti.

¼ cup balsamic vinegar
½ pound finely chopped dessert (semisweet) chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

Boil balsamic vinegar until reduced by about half and very syrupy, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Stir in chocolate and cream, place over low heat and heat gently, stirring frequently, until chocolate melts. Then increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon; if necessary, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for one to two minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in butter. Serve the sauce warm or at room temperature. The sauce will thicken as it cools and may need thinning with cream.

Balsamic tuna tartare
4 to 6 servings

The very best tuna -- sushi-grade if you can find it -- is crucial for tartare. It is also important to season the tuna as lightly as possible so the delicate taste of ultra-fresh raw fish comes clearly through. Tartare is best served within 30 minutes because the acid in the lime juice and vinegar start to "cook" the fish. Make it as close to serving as you can -- it takes very little time. For serving, you may like to add sliced avocado to the plate, with daikon or cucumber for contrast of texture.

3 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained, rinsed and finely chopped
½ fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 pound piece of fresh sushi-grade tuna
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional as needed
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus additional as needed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice, plus additional as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 lime, sliced, for garnish
Parsley sprigs for garnish

In a large bowl, combine the shallots, capers, jalapeno, chives and parsley; set aside.

Trim and discard any skin, bone and/or membrane from the tuna. Cut the tuna into one-fourth-inch-thick slices, then cut it into one-fourth-inch-wide strips and finally cut into one-fourth-inch dices. Add the tuna to the shallot mixture and stir gently to combine. Add the oil and stir gently to combine. Repeat with the vinegar, then with the lime juice. Season with salt, pepper and additional oil, vinegar and lime juice to taste and toss gently to combine. Divide the tartare evenly among four individual plates and garnish with lime and parsley. Cover and refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes prior to serving.

Per serving (based on four): 246 calories, 12 gm fat, 43 milligrams cholesterol, 280 milligrams sodium.

Anne Willan is the founder of La Varenne cooking school. Her current book is "Cooking With Wine" (Harry N. Abrams, $49.50).
[emoji]169[/emoji] The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.
Joined Jan 11, 2002
Thanks Isa for having posted this interesting and informative paper on "our" Balsamic vinegar!
My family comes from Emilia Romagna and I've always had a small, precious bottle of true homemade Balsamic at home. It was almost black, and few drops were enough to season a whole salad bowl! Actually it was something completely different from the commercial ones, even the best, and was made by a friend with a "mother" which belonged to his family and was more than 100 years old.

I'd like to add just a couple of advices to your article:

-Try Balsamic on your eggs...few drops on a soft poached or fried egg are wonderful!

-This is my personal recipe of a marinade for poultry or rabbit stew:

-1/2 glass Balsamic
-1/2 glass dry white wine
-3 tbsp extravergine olive oil
-3 oz carrot, diced
-3 oz celery, diced
-2/3 garlic cloves, cut in slices
-1 tbsp Herbes de Provence, or the same amount of fresh chopped rosemary, thyme, sage, basil and oregano;
-4 oz whole black olives

I usually keep the meat (cut in pieces) into the marinade 24 hours, then carefully drain it, brown in oil for 15-20 mins, discard this oil, add the marinade (without the olives), lower the heat and cook covered for about 90 mins. When half cooked add the olives, a fresh diced tomato, salt and pepper.

Joined Oct 27, 2001
Thank you so much to both of you for the information.
Pongi, do you know of anywhere that sells balsamic vinegar on-line to other countries in the EC? I don't mean the really expensive, pure balsamic vinegar, just half decent stuff!
Joined Jul 24, 2001
Come on Pongi!!!

tell us more!!! :bounce: :bounce:

I have heard crazy stories about balsamico di Modena. Like that the girls that owe a small bottle were considered that they had the biggest dowry.
Is this true?
Joined Oct 27, 2001
Oh please do Pongi. Athenaeus and I, among others are such fans of culinary gossip!!
Joined Mar 13, 2001
Best of all: Drizzle your 25 year old Balsamic over the richest vanilla ice cream you can find. do it at the table for maximum effect. It is truly gorgeous eating. :rolleyes:
Joined Feb 6, 2002

I heard that real Balsamic Vinegar should have Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena on the bottle. If it doesn't it is supposed to be some kind of commercial wine vinegar with sugar or caramel added. And its not supposed to be the $2.99 bottle I buy at the supermarket. My cheap bottle says made in Modena, so where do you get the good stuff then :(

Joined Dec 1, 2001
This vinegar is a good substitute for the real thing
Villa Manodori
It is syrup like and sweet.

For those of you that use balsamic vinegar in marinades, doesn't the vinegar start to "cook" the meat? I generally don't use really high acid products in marinades for this reason.
Joined Feb 6, 2002
I use it when I am cooking a particularly tough piece of meat. Like stewed beef. Cuts down on my cooking time and helps tenderize the meat. My kids seem to like the flavor.
Joined Jan 11, 2002
Re crane: it does, but this could be just what you want to get when marinating a tough meat (as ShawtyCat said) or something with a wild taste like game or rabbit. In fact, many Italian recipes of game stews call for vinegar (normal vinegar, not balsamic) in the marinade, to soften the wild taste and tenderize the meat. Of course Balsamic gives a better flavour to the meat! In any case, being the amount of balsamic required small (posting my marinade recipe I said 1/2 glass, but can be less if the Balsamic is very good) also the "cooking" effect is scarce.

Joined Jan 11, 2002
You're right, I've been imprecise, and I've already been asked if "a glass" was a shot or a tankard:)
In Italy an average "glass" (meant for cooking use) is 200 ml. If your balsamic is very good and strong, no doubt you'll need much less than 100 ml...but I must admit that usually I don't waste the best one for marinades but choose something more ordinary;)

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