Last month, we introduced this series on balsamic vinegar. It is such a classic and contemporary complement to extra virgin olive oil we believe it warranted its own exploration, so we went straight to the source in Modena, Italy to learn more about it. As Part I demonstrated, balsamic vinegar is not unlike olive oil: there are many types and quality differences. In Part II, we want to share what we learned from producers of traditional balsamic vinegar about how they make the most of this wonderful elixir.
So, what do you use such a special (and expensive) product for? There are probably as many inventive ways to use true balsamic as the imagination can dream up. Reaching for it when mixing up an everyday salad dressing, however, would make the Italian producers of traditional balsamic vinegar shudder at the thought that this delicious nectar is used with abandon in vinaigrette. In certain Italian families, this vinegar is considered so special that when a baby is born, they often set aside a cask to be used at his or her wedding.
Like any wine or olive oil, appreciating the quality and differences in true balsamic vinegar starts with a tasting. The Modena consortium recommends placing a drop of vinegar on the tip of a spoon and judging its round flavor or its cutting edge by how the taste buds respond. Also just like wine and extra virgin olive oil, which vinegar to use depends on the particular flavor of the dish it will best complement. Our new line of traditional balsamic vinegars, Cask 8, Cask 10, and Cask 25, really show off how different their flavor profiles can be, ranging from the subtle hint of citrus in Cask 10 to the jam-like, plum essence of Cask 25.
Traditional balsamic vinegar can be used for dishes as varied as fresh, steamed or boiled vegetables, vegetable omelets, or zucchini flowers; as a last refining touch to meat and fish, like foie gras, calf’s liver, lobster salad, stuffed mussels or scallops; and for desserts such as ice cream topping or as a reduction on top of wild strawberries. Many contemporary restaurants in the U.S. serve it on the side with extra virgin olive oil or use it as a drizzle over flatbreads and salads. We ate a fabulous lunch in Modena that consisted of veal tortellini nestled in a bowl created from baked parmesan, topped with traditional balsamic vinegar and a filet of beef with a balsamic vinegar reduction.
How much should you use? A good rule of thumb is one teaspoon per person. Special recipes will require different amounts, of course. When traditional balsamic vinegar is used in the cooking process, it should be added just before the dish is removed from the stove so that it can flavor the food without losing its aroma in the cooking process. When the dish is to be “dressed” with traditional balsamic vinegar, add it immediately before serving. You can either sprinkle it on top of the food, or pour the vinegar on the plate and add the food on top of it. Chefs in Modena recommended following the classical order of adding salt, then balsamic vinegar, and then extra virgin olive oil.
When it comes to storage, keep your traditional balsamic vinegar in a glass container. It needs no particular care. Keep the bottled corked and keep it away from highly scented items. But also remember that traditional balsamic vinegar will continue to mature over time and its organoleptic characteristics will evolve. When it is 50 years old, it will be very thick and become overly aromatic. But unlike wine that could be past its prime, balsamic vinegar doesn’t lose its value or usefulness. What to do? Continue to use it as an after dinner liquor!
So, don’t think traditional balsamic vinegar is only for traditionalists. There are many wonderful and creative ways to include it in your kitchen repertoire and ways that will complement your very best extra virgin olive oils. Just like pairing the right wine with a menu can make all the difference, pairing the right balsamic vinegar will do the same. Better used with discretion than abandon, the intensity of its flavor is proof that the best things can come in small packages.
The Olive Oil Source offers an incredibly wide range of balsamic vinegars, from the traditional to the contemporary fruit-based options that will complement your kitchen repertoire. Visit our Boutique to shop for a special few.