Most everyone knows how to use balsamic to enliven salads with a touch of acidity in a nice vinaigrette. But this deep-hued vinegar has so many more uses in the kitchen when it comes to enhancing our favorite recipes.
During fall, when roasts and stews make their long awaited comeback on chilly nights and seasonal veggies have layers of earthy, warm natural flavors, adding one or two types of balsamic vinegar beside the olive oil, salt and pepper is a fine idea.
To better understand the nuances of which balsamic vinegars work for best for cooking versus which ones are better just drizzled after dinner (or dessert) is prepared, TODAY Food spoke to Michelin-starred chef Jonathan Benno. So, let's say "buon giorno" to balsamic!
Selecting the right vinegar
Balsamic vinegars can be broken into to two categories: P.G.I. balsamic vinegar of Modena and commodified or manufactured balsamic.
A simple way to know if you're buying the real deal, is to look for balsamic vinegars stamped with "P.G.I." ("Protected Geographical Indication"). Similarly to what differentiates Parmigiano Reggiano from Parmesan cheese, this label proves the product was produced using specific grapes in Italy and monitored by the European Union to ensure authenticity and locality.
For those who may want to spend a bit less on balsamic vinegar for cooking, Benno says to check the ingredients. If the bottle doesn't have the P.G.I. stamp, try to avoid those with added corn syrup or sugars. The balsamic already has a natural sugar content, and often "commodity producers" will add sweet artificial fillers to dilute the product and make it more affordable. When cooked, these added sugars can burn more quickly than true balsamic and create different recipe results than the truer balsamic.
Save premium balsamic for drizzling
Like fine wine, aged P.G.I. vinegars intended to accentuate beautiful dishes with a raw drizzle cost more. There are many P.G.I. vinegars aged less than 3 years that are accessible and affordable, but once a vinegar is aged 3 plus years, it is considered "aged." The longer it is aged, the more expensive it can cost. For example, Modena, Italy's Carandini, one of the oldest balsamic producers (operating since 1641), produces traditional vinegars and premium aged vinegars made from local grapes fermented, acetified and aged. The premiums can range in prices up to $75, but a little goes a very long way.
"A premium, high density balsamic with a bolder, more intense flavor such as the Emilio Silver, would be ideal as a final touch to dishes. It only takes a few drops to elevate both savory and sweet dishes such as cheese, strawberries and ice cream," Carandini CEO Stefano Bellei told TODAY.
"With those, you do a drop or two with Parmigiano Reggiano, salumi, gorgonzola. It's meant to be an accent or a highlight," Benno told TODAY. "The acidity, complexity and sweetness stands up to the fat and richness of foie gras or other fattier meats and cheeses."
Other foods that shine beautifully with a drizzle of aged balsamic, include creamy desserts like fior di latte, hazelnut or pistachio gelato, strawberries or ice creams.
Now that we've mastered how to use just a few drops of balsamic vinegar to make fattier meats and decadent desserts unique, it's time to get cooking with what Benno calls "jug balsamic" (those more affordable, less aged, still authentic, D.O.P. or from another origin vinegars without added sugars or additives.
In the fall, most seasonal vegetables, from earthy mushrooms to sweet squashes work beautifully when cooked with balsamic. One of the best parts is how easy it is to enhance different produce with vinegar.
"Sugars helps with caramelization and color on vegetables," Benno told TODAY. "Squashes split, seeds scooped out, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a sheet pan (lined) with aluminum foil, use olive oil — not extra virgin — and a jug balsamic drizzled and roasted in oven."
The same preparation can be used across the board for halved or whole Brussels sprouts, carrots, turnips, celery root, beets or carrots.
Soups, stews and braises
For many soups, such as lentil, barley or even creamy pumpkin, Benno advises topping them with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
"Make it, puree it, drizzle with with balsamic and olive oil," he told TODAY.
When Benno is cooking at home rather than his restaurant, he often uses a pressure cooker like Instant Pot to make hearty stews. Any kind of beef or pork stew that typically calls for red wine can shine with one part balsamic vinegar in the mix at the same stage one would use red wine.
In braises, such as a braised short rib, Benno warns against using balsamic to deglaze the pan as one would use wine because the balsamic's natural sugars can get too sticky and sugary.
"In a recipe for braised short rib, it will say deglaze with wine and reduce. Don’t reduce the balsamic. Add maybe 1/2 cup of balsamic instead of wine after deglazing the pan with water or broth.
Make a balsamic reduction
Cooking down balsamic vinegar into a reduction that highlights its sweetness can be. used can be used in many dishes as a final touch. It works wonderfully on salads, drizzled on meats, cheeses, ice creams and even heartier fishes. For those who may not have access to premium aged balsamic meant for drizzling, reducing a jug balsamic can be a great alternative for that pretty and flavorful final note to serve appetizers, dinners or dessert.
To do so requires attention but hardly any time.
"Reduce it slowly and keep an eye on it. In a wide pan, literally keep a hand on pan (handle). If starting with 1 cup, reducing down to a glaze will only take a minute or two," Benno told TODAY. "It will go from syrup to burnt caramel very quickly. Swirl constantly. Scrape down sides so it doesn’t burn. When it's finished, it should be hot and tacky between your fingers if you carefully dip in."
Reductions can be used immediately over your favorite veggies, meats, salads or soups or stored in a jar and kept in the pantry.
Benno loves reserving his reduction and using it in lieu of cream cheese (drizzled not spread) on a smoked salmon bagel with capers and olive oil.
Balsamic serves as a beautiful marinade for pork tenderloin or pork chops, chicken and most cuts of beef. Benno advises using balsamic in marinades when grilling or roasting meats, as cooking them in a fry pan can cause the sugars to burn the exterior of the protein and get sticky.
"The sugar in balsamic works to a cook's advantage. The sugar in balsamic helps caramelization, sweetness, acid," Benno, who often combines olive oil (for cooking, use regular, not extra virgin), balsamic vinegar, garlic, sage and rosemary, to marinate meats.
When grilling, gently rotate the protein frequently to ensure the balsamic doesn't burn. In the oven, line sheet pans with aluminum foil or using a roasting rack and be sure to turn the meat.
Balsamic marinades with olive oil, fresh garlic and some fresh herbs like sage or rosemary also shine on heartier fish and shellfish, Benno added, including salmon, tuna, octopus, sardines, mackerel, roasted scallops and grilled lobster. Instead of letting the seafood soak in the marinade, however, it's best to brush the marinade on top just before and during cooking.
And voila, flavorful fall dishes are abundant with the perfect balance of earthiness, sweetness and acidity.