~ Reducing Balsamic Vinegar: To Create a Savory Syrup, Sauce or Glaze for Dipping or Drizzling ~
When balsamic vinegar is reduced the flavors concentrate and create a savory syrup (or sauce or glaze or whatever you refer to it as). It might look like a top-shelf fancy garnish, but let me assure you: it is not rocket science. Italian families have been making and using this rich, flavorful condiment for generations, but it took the birth of food TV and TV chefs for us American home cooks to find out about it. Prior to reducing the vinegar, some chefs like to add a bit of brown sugar to it, others add a bit of honey, and, others add nothing at all. This is a matter of preference. I've done it all three ways, and, personally, I think brown sugar does produce a pleasant, subtle sweet undertone to the final product. The addition of sugar also seems to help the mixture to thicken up a bit faster. I pretty much like to keep a container of this condiment in my kitchen all year round (it seems to keep forever in the refrigerator, because a little of it goes a very long way) and I especially love to drizzle it on all sorts of grilled and roasted vegetables (asparagus, mushrooms, squash and tomatoes to name a few). It is delicious brushed on poultry for a very flavorful glaze, plus, it is the perfect compliment to dishes containing bitter greens such arugula, chicory or radicchio!
A bit about balsamic vinegar: Balsamic vinegar was introduced to the USA in the late 1970's and quickly became the darling of restaurant chefs. It is hard to believe that thirty-some years ago almost none of us in America had even heard of it. This wonderful wine-based vinegar is still made in Modena, Italy, where it is aged in oak or other wooden kegs. During the process, it takes on a mellow, full-bodied, slightly sweet flavor and a deep, reddish-brown color. When a recipe calls for balsamic vinegar, there really is no good substitute for it. When purchasing balsamic vinegar, look for brands that denote Modena or Reggio, which are the only two authentic sources.
The Italian word "balsamico" means "balsam-like" or "curative". There are two types of balsamic vinegar: commercial and artisanal. Artisanal balsamic vinegar is made by simmering and reducing the juice (or "must") of sweet, white Trebbiano grapes and aging it for at least 12 years in a succession of graduated-in-size wooden kegs made of various types of wood (oak, cherry, juniper and mulberry). The vinegar maker works meticulously, transferring the ever-more concentrated vinegar down the line until a liter or two of finished vinegar emerges from the smallest barrel. Artisinal varieties, which are quite pricey, are very complex and are used sparingly as a last minute flavoring. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label denotes 18 years and a gold label designates 25 years or more.
Commercial balsamic vinegar, which is much less expensive, is made by blending good wine vinegar, reduced juice ("must") and young balsamic vinegar. It is then aged in the kegs that were used in the artisanal process. It is used in salad dressings, dips, marinades, and sauces.
Reducing commercial balsamic vinegar couldn't be easier. The time will vary a bit, depending on the surface area of the bottom of the pot you are using, and, the only mistake you can make is not watching it carefully towards the end, because it can and will burn. That being said, I feel compelled to forewarn you that when you are simmering the vinegar, your house is going to take on a strong vinegary smell, so, you might want to do it on a day when you can open a window!
For the balsamic reduction:
3 cups commercial balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
~ Step 1. Place the vinegar in a 2-quart saucier and stir in the sugar. Over low heat, bring to a simmer and continue to simmer steadily and gently for 25-35 minutes, or until the mixture is reduced by a little more than two-thirds, which is my personal favorite thickness. You will have about 2/3 cup of syrup.
Note: A saucier (sauce-ee-ay) is a shallow, wide-bottomed pot with rounded sides that promotes reduction because of the large surface area.
~ Step 2. Testing for doneness. Finished syrup will coat the back of a spoon, but the best test for doneness is to place a streak of syrup on a cool plate. If it feels slightly sticky and holds its shape when you draw your finger through it, it's done. If you want your sauce thicker than this, continue to cook until reduced even further, but be very careful to watch it so it does not burn/scorch.
Return to room temperature, and/or reheat, prior to serving or using, by placing the container in microwave oven at low power for about 1-2 minutes, stopping to gently shake the container about once every 30 seconds. Transfer to a plastic squeeze bottle, if desired.
Special Equipment List: 2-quart saucier or saucepan; 1-cup food storage container; plastic squeeze bottle (optional)
Cook's Note: Now that it is Winter and a lot of my favorite vegetables are out of season, I like to roast what is available to me in the oven, which gives them a real flavor boost. Yesterday I found fresh asparagus. It was rather thick, but I was still happy to see it, so I bought it. To roast asparagus and tomatoes (which is one of my favorite combinations) as pictured above: in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish, place 2 bunches of medium-thick asparagus that have been trimmed of their woody stalk-ends to a length of 3 1/2"-4". Add 1 pint of grape tomatoes and 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme. Drizzle with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, toss like you would a salad, and top with freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend. Roast on center rack of preheated 400 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Serve immediately garnished with coarse sea salt and a drizzle of balsamic reduction syrup. Serves 4-6 as a side-dish.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)