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How to use Balsamic Vinegar

posted in Main Dishes, Recipes, Spices and Seasonings by Emily Chapelle

What is balsamic vinegar anyway?
Balsamic vinegar is a reduction made from grapes, but it is not considered a wine vinegar because the grape juice used is unfermented. The unfermented white sweet grape juice that is used is called “must” and comes from Trebbiano grapes.

First, the grape juice is cooked slowly in a copper cauldron until it is reduced by 35 to 50 per cent. Then, the reduction is placed (along with a bit of already-aged vinegar to get the process started) into oak barrels to age. Each year, some of the vinegar evaporates, and the vinegar is transferred into a smaller barrel made of a different wood (chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, cacia, and ash are commonly used). Each wood used infuses a different flavor into the vinegar, making it more complex and interesting. And as the vinegar ages and becomes concentrated, it becomes thick, sweet and dark.

This process originated in the northern Italian city of Modena. If balsamic vinegar is made following the standards of Modena (which includes each type of wood barrel) and passes a rigorous taste test, it may be deemed Tradizionale di Modena. Reggio-Emilia is another Italian city where traditional balsamic vinegar is made (vinegars made here would be called tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia). These vinegars are expensive and are wonderful for flavoring meat, as a dip for strawberries, and even as a flavoring for a sweet beverage. Some desserts, including panna cotta, crème caramel and zabaglione, may call for this vinegar.

You might be more familiar with a more commercial version of balsamic vinegar, which has a much shorter aging process. Often, some of the traditional barrels are skipped (and in many cases, only oak is used). This vinegar is fantastic for using in salad dressings, marinades, sauces, and pastas. Deborah of Play with Food has it on her list of essential pantry items.

How can I use balsamic vinegar in my cooking?

There are three basic age groups of balsamic vinegar, and each is used differently:

The youngest group, 3 to 5 years, is good for salad dressings, dipping sauces for vegetables and bread, sauces and marinades.

The middle age group, 6 to 11 years, is more viscous and is quite versatile. Use it in sauces (at the end of cooking), in risotto and pasta dishes, in marinades and mixed with mayonnaise or sour cream for a sandwich condiment.

Well-aged balsamic vinegar (12 to 150+ years) is best used after the cooking is finished, and in otherwise mild dishes (nothing spicy or heavily seasoned), so it can shine on its own. Use it to flavor meat like chicken, steak, fish or veal. It is well-suited to fruit and cheese pairings, such as strawberries, peaches and pears, along with ricotta or feta cheese. It may be enjoyed by itself (just a tiny amount) or added to water (or sparkling water) for a refreshing beverage.

OK, it’s on my grocery list. What’s the best kind to get?

If you want the thick, sweet, complex Tradizionale, look for a label that has the phrase Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, which is a term applied only to the best balsamics. Expect to pay a good amount for this vinegar. You will only use it in drops, so it will last a while. Condimiento vinegars will also be high-quality, as they are made in the same way as the tradizionale, though they may be produced outside Modena.

If you are looking for a more accessible balsamic, check the ingredients to make sure no sugar is added. Often, low-quality vinegar is bitter, and brown sugar may be added to help mask its inferiority. True balsamic vinegar only has one ingredient: must. You may also note the age of the vinegar, if the bottle is labeled with this information. In general, more aged balsamic vinegar is better.

Some markets will have balsamic vinegars that you can buy by filling glass bottles yourself. Often at these shops, you are able to taste the vinegars before buying. This is the best way to make sure the vinegar you are taking home with you agrees with your palate and has a balanced flavor.

It’s in my pantry now. Know any good recipes?

Pork chops and spinach with balsamic reduction is a quick and simple recipe for a weeknight dinner. Don’t be scared off by the term “reduction” – it just means that the balsamic vinegar gets simmered, and thickens into a saucy consistency.

Asparagus, pea, bruschetta pasta uses balsamic vinegar in a different twist on the bruschetta topping.

Chicken and Peppers with Balsamic Vinegar is a colorful dish that would be perfect for a summer potluck.

Grilled Eggplants with Fresh Mint and Balsamic Vinegar sounds like the perfect spring dinner, maybe served with risotto!

Mascarpone Mousse with Balsamic Vinegar Caramel is a light, delicious dessert.

Phantom Gourmet’s Tuscan Sliders are topped with gorgonzola cheese and a balsamic pomegranate reduction.

Strawberry Risotto with Balsamic Vinegar looks and sounds amazing!

And since strawberries and balsamic vinegar seem to be a match made in heaven, you may want to try Strawberry Balsamic Sherbet.

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Andy said:

That is a great post. I like the ones where you learn something new (and this is all new to me).

jotajota said:

One scoop, vanilla icecream. The best you can get.

A few drops of balsamic vinegar.

You’ll thank me later ;)

Laurent said:

Glad you like my mascarpone mousse with balsamic caramel mousse ;-) Balsamic vinegar is a gift from gods, you can prepare so much wonderfull thinkgs with it. I love it with strawberries and as far it’s the best moment for strawberries, i wish you ‘ll test it.

Kathy Maister said:

It’s also pretty great with grilled pineapple!

KGWagner said:

Excellent post! I had no idea balsamic could be used so many different ways.

We have an authentic Italian supermarket close by here – I’m going to go today and see what their selection looks like, and pick up some Tradizionale di Modena. I’m especially interested in trying it with some vanilla ice cream. If it’s as good as everyone says, I’m going to have quite a surprise for my next dinner guests.

Wish my credit card luck!

KGWagner said:

Well, I did it. I went and got some 12 year old Tradizionale di Modena, and have used it twice now. Once, to complement a hunk of roast beast I made, and the second time on some French vanilla ice cream.

All I can say to everybody is: you must try this stuff. Absolutely fantastic. I think I’m going to put it on the cat, the girlfriend, the computer… (just kidding! )

Be aware that a very little bit goes a long way. In fact, I think it’s one of those deals where less is more. You will probably want to put a shaker top on the bottle if you can because you don’t want to pour this stuff – you’re guaranteed to have too much if you do.

Thanks for educating me on it. I’ve always kept balsamic around, but just the artificial general food type, not this stuff. I didn’t even know it existed.

Kathy Maister said:

Sounds like the next stop is…Italy!

KGWagner said:

Y’know… this is a stretch, but you could almost think of this as a diet food. 1 Tbsp. of Balsamic has 0 calories, while most condiments have at least some, if not a lot. For instance, I normally put 5 or 6 Tbsp. of butterscotch or chocolate on a cup of ice cream, which will add between 200-300 calories. Using the balsamic is free, calorie-wise.

Same with veggies or taters. Cheese sauce, sour cream, butter, etc. are all heavy in calories and fat, while balsamic has 0. Speaking of veggies, taters, and meat, you also don’t have to use any salt if you use this stuff, even though it has 0 sodium in it. And I mean to tell you, I’m a salt monster. I could live on the stuff. I salt bacon when nobody’s looking. But even I don’t need it with balsamic.

I know, I’m overselling it. It must have a downside, right? Well, yes it does. It ain’t cheap. But, you use so little the cost is spread out tolerably.

Kathy Maister said:

Thanks KGW for the great review!

I would like to really emphasize something you just said – “A little balsamic vinegar goes a long way…” The flavor is so intense that a little literally means starting with 1/2 teaspoon and gradually adding more. This is not like butterscotch or chocolate sauce that you can eat with a spoon (from the jar!) or as a topping. Drop by precious drop it gets added to food!

MeredithAnn said:

I’ve used this (best I can afford) and somewhat rather inexpensive varieties for years. It just adds that little bit of “tweek” to any favorite is still good or very good balsamic vinegar but truly heaven with strawberries, salad dressings, anything that needs a little “hit” of flavor. Again, as others have said – a little goes a very long way.

maggie said:

thanks for featuring my recipe! hope you liked it!

paresh said:

thanks for sharing.

Linda said:

I have just started a very low fat diet and would like to use balsamic vinegar for a dressing on a green salad. I am not to have any other dressings and I can’t stand to eat it without something on it. I would like to know if anyone has used it for a dressing. I know very little about this vinegar but have been told it’s very good for you.

Thank you

Kathy Maister said:

My sister in law just drizzles on a few drops of balsamic vinegar to her salad with no oil. It does have a very intense flavor so you really only need a very small amount!

KGWagner said:

Linda –
I haven’t used it by itself on a salad, but vinegar and oil is probably the oldest salad dressing known to humankind.

Balsamic is pretty strong stuff, though. You generally use it very sparingly, as it can easily overwhelm things. Because of that, you’d be eating a pretty dry salad if all you put on it was balsamic in a quantity that wouldn’t make you cringe.

Kathy Maister said:

Good point Kevin! Without the oil it is intense!

Linda, some people like just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice on their salad. You might want to give that a try.

sandy said:

Help ….. I had 1 bottle for about 3 years. Loved how it tasted. bought another bottle ($12-20 range) tastes very vinegary. what can I do? what do I look for on the label? p.s. the label from 1st bottle was gone.

KGWagner said:

Sandy –

It should say either Tradizionale di Modena or tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia. The one I have here is the Modena variety and is imported/bottled by a company named “Racconto”. It’s a 12 year vintage as it comes.

Patty Ladwig said:

I made a rasberry vinegarette 3 months ago withthe Racconto Raspberry infused Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Today when I picked up the bottle it was only 1/4 full and the contents has become a solid mess with just a teaspoon of liquid. Shaking the bottle does no good. If this is sediment it a hard mass. HELPPPP~~

Patty Ladwig

startcooking said:

Hi Patty,
Where did you store your vinegar?

Denominazione di Origine Protetta said:

What is DOP Certification for Balsamic Vinegar?

DOP certification or Protected Designation of Origin, is granted to select balsamic vinegar makers in the Modena province in Italy.When you select a DOP certified product, you are assured that it is the product of a unique tradition and culture, guaranteeing the highest unadulterated quality with unrivaled flavor.

Morgan said:

This was a very informative post. Thanks!

Jennifer said:

i just found a flounder recipe that calls for balsalmic vinegar. I added it to my roasted peppers, onions and garlic but it stinks…will it reduce and go nice with the fish?

KGWagner said:

Jennifer –

I hope you didn’t confuse tablespoons and teaspoons! Balsamic vinegar is powerful stuff – you usually use it in teaspoon (or less) measures.

That said, any vinegar has a powerful odor to it, so you might be worried about nothing. Wait until you taste it to decide. As far as reducing, Balsamic is already reduced pretty far – it’s the defining quality of the condiment, so the next step is turning it to tar. Plus, reducing never mellows things out, it intensifies them, so if it’s too strong now, it’s not going to improve.

But, just taste it out of the pan. That’s the ultimate test. If it’s too much, there’s probably not much you can do about it, but I suspect you’ll find it’s just right if you followed the recipe.

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