Perhaps one of my favorite mediterranean condiments is balsamic vinegar. Vinegar in general, whether balsamic, wine, apple cider or other flavored vinegar, is a wonderful flavor additive. It’s acidity is particularly great at cutting through fat and at complementing strong spices. The main component of salad dressings, vinegar can also give vegetables flavor and alter their texture. One of the best mediterranean salads in my book is a Mozzarella Caprese. Fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, hand torn basil and a hint of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. So simple, yet so complex. BUT, and here’s the rub, not all vinegars are alike. This salad truly is contingent on a high quality balsamic vinegar. But how do you know if a balsamic vinegar is high quality or not?? Well, there are a few things to look for.
First, a note on how balsamic vinegar is made. First grapes are pressed into a juice that is then boiled down and the concentrated juice is subsequently fermented. The strength and grade of the balsamic is determined by how long the vinegar has been aged. Traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena are rare and quite expensive. However, there are many domestic varieties and other commercially manufactured varieties that come from all over the world. Many are actually made by adding colorings and flavorings to wine vinegars to ressemble the complex flavor of a true balsamico from Modena.
OK, so what does that mean when you are shopping at the store, looking for a balsamic vinegar. The main thing I look for with balsamic vinegar regardless of what the label says is not necessarily where it came from and how long it says it has been aged. I check it’s color or clarity and it’s viscosity or thickness. I like a balsamic that is very dark in color and very viscous, almost the texture of molasses or a thick maple syrup. One of my personal favorites is a 25 year aged organic balsamic vinegar that I found at the Olive Mill, which is a chain that can be found in various boutique stores across the country. They offer flavored vinegars and vinegars of all kinds. The beauty of it is that you can actually taste and see the vinegar before purchasing.
Unlike perhaps wine or olive oil, in the case of balsamic vinegar, price DOES matter. The more you are willing to spend, the higher the quality of vinegar you are going to get. BUT, with that said, don’t worry, there are some techniques you can use to maximize the flavor of a mediocre balsamic vinegar and still end up with a delicious salad. How do you do this?? Reduce, reduce, reduce.
Take an ordinary, run of the mill balsamic vinegar. Pour the contents of the entire bottle into a saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil. Stand back because the fumes from the vinegar can knock you off your feet! Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the vinegar reduce until only half or 1/3 of the vinegar is left in the saucepan. What you are looking for is that the vinegar coats the bottom of the pan when you tilt it and slowly slides down. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely before using. Transfer to a squirt bottle and use just like you would use vinegar for dressing or for dipping. This reduction will be thick, sweet and unctuous. Not only is it great as an ingredient, but it is a beautiful garnish, making lovely swirls and drizzles on any plate. The vinegar is a natural preservative so it will keep for a long time at room temperature no need to refrigerate.
And don’t shy away from some of the flavored balsamic vinegars you see. I know they aren’t traditional, but they are great for salad dressings. Personal favorites are raspberry basamic and fig balsamic. I don’t reduce these, but use them in salads because they completely change the dressing simply by changing the flavor of the vinegar with the same basic recipe, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbl vinegar, 1 Tbl White Wine, 1 Tbl Honey and 1 Tbl Dijon Mustard. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and off you go. This can be multiplied easily and keeps well in a tightly sealed tupperware in the fridge for up to two weeks. Enjoy!!