The wonder of a balsamic vinegar reduction landed on my radar back in the mid-’90s. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello had invited me to his trendy Napa Valley wine-country restaurant, Tra Vigne, to sample his fare. The two most memorable offerings he shared both incorporated this syrupy rich, tangy-yet-smooth ingredient, and in both cases, provided the kind of lick-your-plate perfection we all strive for now and then in cooking.
The first dish was a simple appetizer playing off the subtle flavorful layerings of a well-made fresh mozzarella, and slices of backyard-ripened tomatoes and fire-roasted red peppers resting on puddles of emerald green basil-infused olive oil. Droplets of his balsamic vinegar reduction floated in the oil — liquid obsidian-toned capsules of intense flavor that I dipped into along with bites of the delicate cheese, fruity peppers and tomatoes.
Chiarello explained that garnishing with a good-quality (read very old and very expensive) balsamic vinegar had been popular for eons, but the act of cooking the vinegar down to a syrupy sweet concentrated version was still in its infancy, relatively speaking.
He called it balsamic essence. And it truly was just that: the rich and savory sweet essence of balsamic vinegar without a hint of vinegar’s typical whang.
Then came the polenta: tender, golden triangles of roasted polenta sitting in a buttery, beefy sauce that had such depth of flavor I just sighed. In response, Chiarello dashed from the table with an “I’ll be back in a second,” as he slipped downstairs to his office. Several minutes later, he returned with computer printouts of both recipes. As I scanned the ingredients for the polenta sauce, there it was again: balsamic vinegar reduction.
Ever since, I’ve made sure that I always have a bit of this lovely essence tucked into the side pocket of my fridge. I keep it in a tiny squeeze bottle with a narrow spout so that it can be applied in a slender stream for controlled garnishing. I reach for it when my spaghetti sauce needs zooping up; when a chicken-vegetable saute lacks oomph; when I want to wow our guests with a fancy squiggly garnish alongside a platter of bruschetta or simple grilled meats. It’s unique and special enough to not be considered passe.
One of the best parts of this story is that you don’t need to use the most expensive and aged balsamic vinegar to produce a delicious reduction. In fact, with so many affordable vinegars hitting the market, now’s the time to cook some batches in time for the holiday season — both to have on hand for your own cooking and to give away to lucky friends.
Because of its deep-down goodness, I don’t think it will ever go out of style.
Over the years, I’ve continued to use and adapt the balsamic-based recipes that Chiarello shared with me for his polenta and balsamic sauce. And because they’ve always been a success in my kitchen, I’m sharing them with you now. Along with even more ways to use and enjoy the essence of balsamic vinegar.
A primer for balsamic vinegar reductions
First of all, when boiling balsamic vinegar down into a syrupy essence, you’re throwing a lot of steam and aromas into the atmosphere. So if you have an outdoor kitchen of some sort — a single burner on your gas grill, for example, or a one-pot propane burner, that’s where I recommend you do it.
Secondly, a neat trick to help you track the reduction process is to visualize where the level of a balsamic reduction will end up in relation to the sides of the pot. The recipe will tell you how much vinegar you’re starting out with and how much you’ll have when it’s reduced. Typically, the volume is reduced to one-third or one-quarter of its original volume. So if you’re starting with 2 cups of balsamic vinegar, you’ll end up with 1/2 cup. Pour 1/2 cup of water into the pot you’re using. Now take a chopstick or any other straight object and stick it in the pot. Note the level of water on the chopstick. Then, when you’re reducing the vinegar, you’ll have a visual aid to show you how much more you have to reduce by putting the chopstick in the simmering liquid and noting how high up on the stick it is.
Start with the real deal: First of all, to make a reduction of balsamic vinegar, you must start with genuine balsamic vinegar. There are plenty of imitations, so read the label. The ingredients should include grape must and red wine vinegar, not cider vinegar, corn syrup and caramel coloring.
On the other hand, do not use the really good stuff that you so lovingly brought back from your adventure in Northern Italy last summer. I use the relatively inexpensive commercial balsamics that are becoming so available here in the U.S.
In Italian, they are called “industriale” and a couple of good choices are Fini (this is on the high end of inexpensive, however) and Cavalli. At the low end, I’ve found respectable brands at warehouse-style stores like Costco. The basic flavor is less complex than the spendier artisan-made balsamics. But a well-made commercial balsamic will at least have sweetness, accentuated by tartness and a lingering richness.
Jan’s basic balsamic vinegar reduction: To turn one of these average commercially made balsamic vinegars into a very rich and flavorful balsamic essence, pour 2 cups of the appropriate balsamic vinegar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add 1/2 cup of coarsely chopped yellow onion, 2 teaspoons of sugar, and 10 or 12 peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer, uncovered, until the mixture has reduced down to about 1/2 to 1/3 cup and is thickened and somewhat syrupy. Let the mixture cool (it will thicken a bit more when chilled) and then strain through a fine sieve (be sure and press the onions with the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze out all of the juicy balsamic syrup). Store the reduction in a tightly closed jar or bottle with a slender squeeze top. It will keep for months and months. Use it to drizzle over tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, polenta, grilled chicken, vegetable saute or to drizzle over roasted vegetables.
For a simple appetizer, pour a small puddle of extremely good quality extra-virgin olive oil into the center of a lovely white plate then squirt in a few droplets of the balsamic vinegar reduction. Provide slices of a crusty Italian bread for dipping.
Enriched version: While the vinegar mixture is boiling, cut 4 tablespoons of butter into small chunks. After the liquid has reduced, add the chunks of butter one by one, stirring thoroughly after each addition. Do not add another chunk of butter until the previous chunk has thoroughly melted. Makes about 3/4 cup sauce.
Storing your balsamic reductions: For long-term storage, refrigerate the reduction, which will maintain quality. But for a week or less, you can certainly keep the sauce at room temperature, it’s not a safety issue. I keep a large batch of the sauce in a jar with a nonreactive lid. Then I transfer small amounts into little plastic squeeze bottles (about 2-ounce capacity) to make my artistic squiggle presentations. They’re available at most craft stores.
This sauce is a big step up from my “Basic Balsamic Vinegar Reduction.” It’s based on the recipe Michael Chiarello shared with me several years ago. It’s fabulous served with roasted polenta (recipe follows), alongside some grilled vegetables, with or without grilled fish or chicken breasts. And if you want to go the extra mile for some special friends, use this sauce with the pork medallions and grilled pineapple recipe instead of the balsamic-molasses reduction.
Best ever balsamic sauce
2cups balsamic vinegar
1/2cup chopped yellow onion
2 to 3teaspoons whole peppercorns
3cups chicken broth (I use Campbell’s double-strength, undiluted)
3cups beef stock
A medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot (about 8-quart capacity), add the vinegar, chopped onion, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until reduced to a syrup consistency (you will have about 1/2 cup of liquid). Add the chicken broth and beef stock, bring to a boil again, then simmer until reduced to a sauce consistency (you will end up with about 1 cup). Strain the sauce through a wire-mesh sieve, pressing down on the onion bits with a wooden spoon or spatula to force them through the sieve for extra flavor.
The sauce may be refrigerated for several days or frozen for several months at this point. When ready to finish the sauce, bring it to a simmer and then whisk in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it is all incorporated. Keep hot until ready to serve.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups sauce.
Recipe adapted from Chef Michael Chiarello, Napa Valley, California
I learned from Chef Michael that you can create a very tender and moist polenta by using equal parts polenta meal and semolina (Bob’s Red Mill, a Portland-based company, makes both). He also taught me that a reliable ratio of liquid and dry ingredients is 3-to-1. Try it and I think you’ll agree.
Best-ever balsamic sauce (See note below)
3 cups chicken broth (I use either homemade or Campbell’s double-strength, undiluted)
3 cups heavy cream
1/4teaspoon ground white pepper
1cup polenta meal
1/2cup grated Jarlsburg cheese
1-1/4cups grated Parmesan
Prepare the best-ever balsamic sauce ahead as directed above, but do not whisk in the butter until ready to serve the polenta.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the chicken broth, cream and pepper (if using homemade chicken broth, you might want to add up to 1 teaspoon of salt). Bring this liquid to a boil, then whisk in the polenta and semolina in a steady stream while continuing to whisk.
Continue stirring and cooking over moderate heat. The mixture will begin to thicken after a few minutes. Continue stirring. The polenta is ready when it is very thick and begins to pull away from the sides of the pot (approximately 7 to 10 minutes).
Remove from heat and stir in the Jarlsburg and 3/4 cup of the Parmesan. Immediately pour the polenta out onto an oiled baking sheet, spreading to about 3/4-inch thickness, into a rectangle or square. Cool at room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 48 hours in advance of roasting.
To roast, cut the cooled polenta into squares, triangles or diamonds. Using a spatula, transfer the pieces onto a lightly oiled baking pan, sprinkle generously with the 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan, and place in a preheated 500-degree oven. Roast until golden brown and slightly puffy, about 7 minutes.
While the polenta is roasting, bring the best-ever balsamic sauce to a simmer and whisk in the 1/2 cup of butter in 1 tablespoon chunks. Keep hot until ready to serve.
To serve, pour a bit of the sauce onto each plate, then top with 1 or 2 portions of the roasted polenta.
Makes approximately 6 servings, depending on the size of the pieces.
Alternative suggestions: prepare as above, but serve along with a selection of grilled vegetables (I like to use mushrooms, wedges of onions, sweet bell peppers, and zucchini chunks), and grilled fish or chicken.
This is a wonderful meal to prepare. The grilled pineapple is a perfect counterpoint to the meat, feta and sauce.
Pork medallions with grilled pineapple, feta and tangy balsamic-molasses reduction
1whole, fresh ripe pineapple (preferably a “golden” variety)
1-1/2cups balsamic vinegar
2 or 3sprigs fresh sweet basil leaves
1/4cup coarsely chopped yellow onion
2pork tenderloins (approximately 1 1/4 pound each)
8ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Trim off sharp points of the pineapple leaves so a tuft remains. Grasp the tuft and keep the pineapple upright as you trim away the tough outer skin with wide, downward strokes, using a large, sharp knife. Remove the remaining “eyes.”
Turn the pineapple on its side and slice it into 1/2-inch thick rings. Trim out the core from each slice. Set the slices aside for grilling later.
To prepare the balsamic-molasses reduction, combine the balsamic vinegar, molasses, basil and onion in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a lively simmer and cook until the sauce has been reduced to about 2/3 cup and is thick and syrupy. Strain, then return to the pot and keep warm (or rewarm it when ready to serve).
Within 20 minutes of serving, grill the pineapple slices over medium-hot coals (or a gas burner), cooking on both sides until the edges are golden brown and the slices are still juicy. Keep hot until ready to use.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut a total of 12 1/2-inch thick slices from the tenderloins (you may have some pork tenderloin remaining; refrigerate for another use). Salt and pepper both sides of each medallion. Heat a large, heavy pan over medium-high heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and butter, then sear the medallions on both sides and a bit on the edges. Remove to a baking pan, making four groups of three medallions each (medallions in each group should be touching, more or less in the form of a shamrock). Place a generous crumbling of the feta on top of each group of pork medallions and bake for five to six minutes.
To serve, place a grilled pineapple slice on each plate and top with a group of three pork medallions. Drizzle the balsamic-molasses reduction over the medallions. Serve with a simple rice or pasta dish. Serves 4.
Alternatively: If you already have a batch of Jan’s basic balsamic vinegar reduction in your fridge, you can substitute it for the balsamic-molasses reduction. On the other hand, if you’re willing to make a little greater effort, then substitute the best-ever balsamic sauce for the balsamic-molasses reduction.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at email@example.com.