In almost any grocery store in the States, you’re likely to find shelves filled with bottles labeled “balsamic vinegar.”
The likelihood—nay, the reality—is that most of what you’ll see isn’t actually true balsamic. Real balsamic vinegar contains only grape must, is aged at least 10 years, and has a viscosity far greater than that of the thin liquid many of us know as balsamic.
Chefs and real food experts have some opinions about balsamic, many of them less than flattering. In her cookbook Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton wrote that balsamic is forbidden “always and forever.” J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats, swears balsamic is the fastest way to duck up (as autocorrect would say) a Caprese salad.
But I’m not a career chef. I’m just a food geek who knows her way around a home kitchen, if I may be so bold. My food snobbery is fairly limited to artificial sweeteners, fast food and anything labeled “lite.” Scoff though some might, there are those of us swoon a bit at the oil and balsamic shops that can be found in increasing numbers.
Sure, the wares hawked are mere condimentos, not authentic balsamics, but most of us don’t have such pristine palates that it’s necessary to eschew anything but the real thing. Of course, the more genuine, the better, so if you get your hands on a true tradizionale balsamic, God bless.
Don’t make the mistake of limiting your balsamic to mere salad dressing. The tart-sweet flavors can be a fine complement to much more than simple greens. And don’t be afraid to experiment with some of the flavored varieties. Sure, there are plenty of pros who will turn up their noses, but unless you’re inviting those people over for dinner, why not take a whack at it? If you love balsamic vinegar, try it in these applications.
Brush some balsamic over a steak, and let it sit in the refrigerator anywhere from a few hours to a day before grilling. Using a brush (not just pouring) will get the liquid into the grooves of the flesh, rather than running off the meat. It also reduces waste.
Mix a tablespoon of balsamic with some ground turkey and add spices of choice. Try blueberry balsamic with cinnamon, even adding a few fresh berries if you choose. Going sweet seem odd? We lather turkey in cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving—what’s the real difference?
While keeping your standards (relatively) high matters, it’s of particular importance here. Balsamic can be gorgeous on ice cream, but you do not want to be pouring something that tastes like vinegar over your Haagen-Daaz. Find a nice, thick balsamic and drizzle it over a high-quality vanilla, then add a little fresh-cracked black pepper. It will kick Hershey Syrup’s ass.
A gastrique is caramelized sugar combined with an equal amount of vinegar and reduced. Typically, a gastrique is served with game, like duck, but don’t limit yourself. Try making one with a white balsamic for a lighter flavor and serving with a simple herb-rubbed roast chicken, or drizzle a dark balsamic gastrique over roasted Brussels sprouts or grilled radicchio.
Honestly, I’m always a little surprised when people aren’t familiar with this practice, but I encounter enough of them to know it’s worth sharing again. There are plenty of methods, but the basics are always the same: balsamic, sugar, strawberries. Mix, let sit, enjoy. They’re a lovely topper for pound cake or Greek yogurt, and a nice hostess gift in pretty jars.
In the mood for a nice fizzy drink, but can’t stomach the aspartame of Diet Coke? Stir in a little balsamic with some soda water for something different. This is a good place to try one of those flavored versions, and experiment with different combinations, for fun. And sure, you can always add a little booze if you so choose (poetry!). How’s a splash of tarragon balsamic with some gin and soda, and a good squeeze of grapefruit over plenty of ice sound for the end of summer?
Holly Leber is a writer and editor based in Silver Spring, Md. When she’s not hunting for stories, she can be found going on produce-related shopping sprees, making jam, wine tasting and reading 1930’s Nancy Drew. Holly is the editorial director of The Daily Do Good.
Photo by Andreas Levers CC BY-SA