Balsamic vinegar: it’s easy to assume it’s just a fancy condiment, inaccessible to the beginning or amateur cook. This vinegar hailing from Italy, with a grand reputation and complexity more akin to fine wine than the average vinegar, is famously used in gourmet recipes: such as balsamic glaze reduction, salad dressings, and more.
BUT IS IT A UTILITARIAN CONDIMENT FOR THE HOME KITCHEN? WE BELIEVE SO!
And so does La Merenda’s chef, Dominique Le Stanc. Dominique himself has a strong love for this renowned elixir— and though its pedigree may be impressive (and maybe just a little intimidating), once you get to know it a little better, you’ll realize balsamic vinegar can accompany, enhance, and harmonize with an endless array of recipes and tastes.
GETTING TO KNOW BALSAMIC
What’s one way you can peel away balsamic vinegar’s mystique? By getting acquainted with how it’s made. Underneath all that culinary glamor, balsamic vinegar is really just a wine-based vinegar, deep down.
UNLIKE RED WINE VINEGAR, HOWEVER, ITS CREATION BEGINS WITH WHITE GRAPES.
Further along in its creation, too, more complex flavors besides white grape unlock as the process unfolds. In the authentic vinegar-making tradition (like that of the original balsamic vinegar of Modena), grapes must be “wine-grade”, with Trebbiano white grapes being the classic choice (and their use being the sign of a true and authentic balsamic).
Though that’s not all that goes into the finest high quality balsamic. The fermentation takes place in wooden casks for at least 12 years and up to 25 years, sometimes even more. Then, every year, the vinegar is carefully transferred to smaller and smaller casks of wood: ranging from oak or chestnut to cherry or ash.
THIS PROCESS LETS YOU IN ON SOME OF THE TASTES UNLEASHED FROM THIS VINEGAR.
A delicious high quality balsamic holds a symphony of notes: from smoky, syrupy, and robust to slightly acidic and astringent. All this can reveal how you can pair the condiment with more ingredients and with a greater versatility than you might think. It can be used to very slightly sweeten, add tartness like wine, and imbue a smoky unique flavor all its own.
Á LA CHEF DOMINIQUE: USE BALSAMIC VINEGAR LIKE A SEASONING
One of Dominique’s favorite uses for balsamic is as a simple seasoning—and one that can meld well with a wide range of different preparations. Yes, this vinegar’s flavors can get quite elaborate—but don’t be shy.
In some cases, due to its fermented and wine-like quality, flavors can even vary from bottle to bottle! But this doesn’t mean these flavors can’t find a home in what you happen to be cooking at the moment.
DOMINIQUE RECOMMENDS BALSAMIC VINEGAR TO BE PAIRED WITH FRUITS (FRESH OR ROASTED), SALADS, SOFT CHEESES, SAVORY MUSHROOMS (LIKE PORCINI), ONIONS, AND LEMON.
As intricate as a balsamic’s flavors can get, using it alongside these ingredients won’t likely fail you in the flavor department.
Though we recommend you don’t be too cautious with balsamic, that’s not to say you should be too generous with it, either. A little goes a long way and it’s best to be sparing with it at first, while adjusting how much you use to your personal tastes along the way.
USE BALSAMIC FOR A LITTLE FLOURISH AND DECORATION
Using balsamic vinegar doesn’t have to be all about flavor—it can be all about appearance, too, just as much as taste.
SAYS CHEF DOMINIQUE: USE A SWIRL OR DASH TO ADD A BIT MORE COLOR AND BALANCE TO YOUR DISH.
Like melon gorgonzola, for example: not only does the balsamic accentuate the soft cheese and sweet melon, it also adds a third color, helping the dish “pop” and look more appetizing.
DOMINIQUE’S OTHER TIP:
Right before serving hot soup, add a drizzle. The drops will float to the top, adding a decorative touch as well as a little enhanced taste.
A FRENCH COOKING FAVORITE: USE IT FOR DEGLAZING
From the French word “déglacer,” deglazing can both help “clean” a pan and create a delicious sauce in one single smooth technique. Better yet, a fine balsamic vinegar can be one of the best ways to accomplish this!
Use it to deglaze a pot or pan (not cast iron) that has just cooked meat or onions. The result makes for an excellent savory sauce, or— when cooled down— a delicious marinade.
ANOTHER OPTION BEFORE FINISHING YOUR DEGLAZE:
Add a bit of cream for a velvety smooth balsamic glaze. Chef Dominique recommends this specific concoction for topping roasted figs, peaches, or even porcini mushrooms. Delectable!
DRIZZLE IT ON DESSERTS AND SWEETS
Which brings us to our final section: yes, balsamic can bring a very interesting and tasty note to desserts in all its savory glory.
Especially if your choice desserts are fruity, creamy, or involve dark red berries (especially strawberries or raspberries), your taste buds are bound to sing. On its very own, a light drizzle brings some panache to sweet post-dinner dishes such as these.
EVEN BETTER: DOMINIQUE RECOMMENDS A DESSERT-ORIENTED APPROACH TO DEGLAZING.
Purposefully heat some honey in your pot or pan and deglaze with your balsamic and a pinch of lemon juice. This can add even more syrupy sweetness to your glaze, bringing shining flavors to not only your favorite fruits—but desserts, too!
Whether it’s something sweet, something savory, or to just add a little visual flair to your cookery, balsamic vinegar doesn’t always need to stay on that shelf to be broken out for fancy occasions only. Getting to know it a little better, and using it more often, will show you how eclectic and user-friendly this famous vinegar can truly be.