Molecular Gastronomy: Cosmic Balsamic Vinegar Sheets + The History of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

You're a star!
You’re a star!

One of my major regrets about visiting Italy is that I didn’t find (or even know to look for) The Real Balsamic Vinegar. In an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations I recently viewed, I learned that the stuff most of us think of as balsamic vinegar is actually NOTHING like the real stuff. Like, at all. Commercial grade balsamic vinegar can be mass produced in only one day and tastes very different from the traditional product. Intrigued, I dug for more information.

balsamic toast balsamic sheet hand

Actually, I felt a little indignant that no one ever told me that even the nicest, fanciest  $20 to $30 bottles of balsamic I’ve become accustomed to using were all just rubbish imitations of a deeply rich product, made solely from grapes and can’t be imagined without actually tasting. Every drop of balsamic vinegar I’ve ever had was just a lie. The imitations often contain wine vinegar, grape juice, preservatives and caramel for colour. No one took care of me enough to inform me of the truth of traditional balsamic vinegar. No one but Bourdain. I feel as if the wool has finally been lifted from my eyes and the truth is glorious.

balsamic sheet star

 Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has only been made in Modena and neighboring Reggio Emilia since the 11th century. It is made from mostly Trebbiano grapes, which are harvested, pressed into juice and reduced by cooking on low heat for a few days. Once reduced to 30% of its original volume, the liquid (called must) is then placed in a succession of wood barrels to ferment, mature and age for up to 25 years.

balsamic toast 3

In the barrels, the vinegar slowly evaporates and becomes richer in flavour. None of the liquid can be withdrawn before reaching the minimum age of 12. At that time, part of the product is bottled as a 12-year old traditional vinegar and part is transferred to a smaller barrel to age further. At the end of the aging period (12, 18 or 25 years) a small portion is taken from the smallest barrel and each barrel is topped up with the contents of the next larger, or younger, barrel. Freshly reduced must is added to the largest barrel each year after the topping up process. This process is repeated for many years, meaning that trace amounts of the product could be 100 years old. How maddeningly insane is that? Very.

balsamic toast 2

There are three classifications of balsamic vinegar.

1. Authentic traditional artisan balsamic vinegar, the only kind that may legally be described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionalein the EU.
2. Commercial grade balsamic vinegars produced on an industrial scale.
3. Condimento grade products, which are often a mix of the two above.

Someday I’ll return to Italy and head over to Modena, shell out $350 (yeah, that’s right) for a 25 year old 100ml bottle of balsamic vinegar and be able to die happy. Until then, I’ll have to live with the substitute.

Molecular gastronomy is the funnest. I enjoy unique experiences around food (thus my willingness to pay stupid amounts of money (when I have it) for something delicious) so flavour, texture and presentation are important to me. Making balsamic vinegar sheets is very easy, fun and would make an excellent addition to your hors d’oeuvres tray.

balsamic sheet 1

The only ingredients you need to make balsamic sheets are balsamic vinegar, powdered agar agar (acts like gelatin) and some water. The results are severely satisfying. It goes well with anything balsamic vinegar usually goes well with: chevre, olives, crackers, herbs, pesto, strawberries, etc. I recommend cutting them into small pieces and placing them on bite sized foods as they don’t tear well when you bite into them. Unfortunately, I don’t have video instructions of balsamic sheets, but similar instructions for rum sheets to give you an idea of how it works.

balsamic sheet 2

Balsamic Vinegar Sheets

Ingredients

  • ½ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tbsp powdered agar agar

Directions

Place all ingredients in a small pot. Stirring constantly, bring to a simmer to activate the agar agar. Simmer for 3 minutes or until agar agar has dissolved.

Remove from heat and pour a few tablespoons onto a plate and spread to a very thin layer by rolling the plate around. Try to spread it evenly. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

Cut into the shapes of your desire and carefully pull them up from the surface of the plate. Voila! Severe satisfaction at your fingertips.

balsamic star bite

Buy molecular gastronomy products here.

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Molecular Gastronomy: Honey Wrap and My Dada

honey wrap: you are too sexy

Today is my father’s birthday. He would be 68. Were he alive, we’d probably celebrate by preparing him breakfast in bed, going to see a movie and taking him out to dinner. If he had it his way, we’d all go sailing (the rest of the family would probably protest the temperature, being November and all). In the spring of 2010, my parents moved back to the Abode after nearly 30 years away. They had plans to build a house on the land they had bought, but after a few days, it was clear that dream wouldn’t be possible.

Sid the Sailor. On a boat, dad was at his best.
Sid the Sailor. On a boat, dad was at his best.

 

My father, Sid Smallen; handyman extraordinaire, Sufi mystic, master woodworker and all around awesome guy, was struck on his back by a falling tree and paralyzed from the chest down. He sustained many other internal injuries, and after being helicoptered to the ER, we weren’t sure he would make it. For 10 months, he lived through one crisis after another; heart attack, appendicitis he couldn’t feel, not being able to eat, having to relearn how to breathe without aid, kidney failure, bedsores and at times not being able to talk due to the placement of his tracheotomy. He was moved to a rehabilitation hospital, and over those 10 months, he was never strong enough to leave it. Sometimes he was so filled with drive and energy that he was rockin’ his rehab exercises, sometimes infection and fatigue made it too difficult for him to lift his head. Finally, after being in a septic coma for 2 weeks, my father passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones and so much love on April 24th, 2011.

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Before the accident and as far back as I can remember, my dad was always doing something. He was an excellent tinkerer and could pretty much make whatever he put his mind to. He made most of the furniture in my mum’s home and built a house-sized, 3-story addition to a previous house we lived in. I don’t think he was capable of going a single day without thinking about power tools. He had a good mind for math and science and was also able to apply his creativity in design to his work. I have so much admiration for my father for his strength. He fought so hard when the going was really tough.

 

Dad opening presents: X-mas 2011
Dad opening presents: X-mas 2011

I wish to dedicate this post to my dad. Being my first post on molecular gastronomy, which is the science of cooking (started and cultivated by food tinkerers worldwide) I felt the scientific exploration behind MG accurately captures just the sort of tinkering he’d really appreciate.

 Bird's eye honey wrap

 

Since buying my molecular gastronomy kits, I’ve responded by either sitting around for hours watching the neat instructional videos and springing into molecular gastronomical action in my kitchen or glaring at the kits in overwhelmed disbelief of the possibilities they possess. In the beginning, I needed to take it slow, so I started with a honey wrap or sheet.

 honey wrap

Many of the gelification techniques in molecular gastronomy use agar agar, which is a gelatinous substance derived from algae and activated when boiled. It has been popular in the vegan/vegetarian movements as a gelatin substitute. It is tasteless, odorless, colourless and very easy to use. It can be ordered online and found at most health food stores.

Here is an instructional video demonstrating how to make a similar sort of sheet out of rum.

Honey Wrap

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup water
  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ tsp powdered agar agar

 

honey wrap: you are too sexy

Directions

Place all ingredients in a small pot.

Stirring constantly, bring ingredients to a boil.

Pour contents on plates or in bowls so they make a thin layer. Spread the liquid around on the surface but make sure they’re not too thin as their strength could be compromised. I’d suggest varying the thickness on each surface so you can understand what works best.

Place honey wraps in the fridge for 15-20 minutes. If they aren’t perfectly solid, give your wraps more time to cool.

Cut out a circle shape about the size of your hand from the middle of your wrap. Carefully pull the circle off the surface.

Place yogurt and/or fruit inside your wrap and enjoy.

To dad, from your little girl. Rest in peace.

 

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