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

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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 None of the liquid can be withdrawn before reaching the minimum age of 12.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.

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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.

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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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The Short Reign of the Zataar Tomato and Balsamic Reduction with Mushrooms

Happy Fall everyone! Fall in New England is glorious. It’s been years since I’ve experienced autumn in New York and I’m feeling very lucky to be here now. I like when things change, even if I’m not really ready for it. Part of me misses summer already, but part of me is ready to get snuggled up with winter.

Balsamic Zataar reduction

Making this zataar tomato and balsamic reduction with mushrooms gave me a real cozy feeling. It brought many different flavors together and filled my kitchen with a sweet and warm smell. Making a reduction is easy and very satisfying. It is done by rapidly boiling a liquid in an uncovered saucepan. Keeping it uncovered is important, that way the vapors escape thus thickening the liquid and intensifying the flavor. Sauces, glazes and gravies are traditionally made this way.

Zataar is a Middle Eastern mixture of dried savory herbs, sesame seeds and salt. It’s typically sprinkled on top of hummus or mixed with olive oil as a dip for bread. The very cheap zataar shop I went to in Montreal during my university years pretty much saved my life, so I have fond associations with zataar. There I would get a flatbread covered with zataar and filled with vegetables and yummy sauce.

Balsamic Zataar reduction
Savory, I had, but this reduction needed some sweetness. Tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of sugar stepped up for the challenge, and boy did they work it out.
It’s got a slightly sweet and tangy flavor making it a perfect accompaniment to savory or meaty foods. Being a reduction sauce, it is rather bold. It has it’s own ideas about life and where it belongs. It much prefers being placed loftily atop a piece of meat or a bed of couscous than trivialized by many other flavors. It will not be eclipsed and will happily sabotage your meal if you try anything funny. Somehow, I survived my first attempt at using this reduction in a soup (but just barely). The soup was a hearty blended thing that was nice and mild on it’s own, and needed an extra kick to be interesting. I should’ve known better. The reduction does not accept such insolence. The soup was ruined. It was too complex and in the end my taste buds were retching.

Respect. That’s all the reduction wants. To be recognized for the zing that it brings to a meal. All it asks is to be complimented for complimenting so well. So, respect it received.  On top of beef burger it went, as if it were on a meaty throne. The reduction reigned mightily… also briefly as I ate it.

Zataar Tomato and Balsamic Reduction with Mushrooms

Ingredients

  • 1 large (or 2 medium) tomato, chopped
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ½ cup chopped yellow onions
  • ½ cup sliced mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp zataar
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of pepper

Directions

Heat a saucepan on medium high heat and add some cooking oil.

Lightly brown the onions. Then add the tomato, vinegar, sugar and spices.

Once simmering, add the mushrooms.

Reduce heat to medium low when the mushrooms have released their juices (you will know that this has happened when suddenly it looks more like a sauce).

Let the sauce simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.

Eat and love.