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Traditional aged balsamic vinegar is one of the more electrifying substances you can put on your food, or straight in your mouth. (1) It also takes decades to barrel-age, and can cost hundreds of dollars for a tiny, precious bottle.
If you’ve thought critically about the “balsamic reduction” on roughly 80% of restaurant menus since the mid-1990s, you’ve realized that the technique only sounds fancy: You can simply cook down supermarket balsamic vinegar (2) on the stovetop to make a black, sticky, drizzle-able imitation of the traditional. But it will be sharp and stinging, lacking the depth and sweetness of the really good stuff. (3)
You could instead buy bottles labeled balsamic glaze or reduction right on store shelves, but it’s best to check the ingredient list—they might have been thickened with xanthan or guar gum, and artificially sweetened and colored to carefully mimic the traditional look and feel.
But America’s Test Kitchen tinkered until they found the best way to make an regular old bottle of balsamic (4) taste like a million bucks. They don't just (carefully) reduce it, but also add a wingman ingredient or two: As they discovered, all it takes to temper and round out the flavors of a standard-issue balsamic reduction is a little bit of sugar and a little bit of port.
This was hauntingly good when I tried it over ice cream, but I was suspicious that these two ingredients had made enough of a difference to be worth it, especially because I don’t typically keep port around (who am I, William Pitt the Younger?). So I tried the reduction again four different ways: with sugar, with port, with sugar and port, and with nothing added. The most delicious and well-balanced, and noticeably so, was the version with both. I surrendered.
If you really wanted to try this hack and were missing the port—say you were in need of an impressive, very-last-minute dinner party dessert, or something to throw on your cheese plate or to pep up your steak or soup or salad (or you know, your well-priced, fancy quarterly balsamic delivery from Food52 had run out)—you absolutely could. You could just leave the port out, or splash in a fruity red wine, or honey, or cherry juice and tweak the flavor and consistency as you like.
Or you could just surrender as I did, and commit this formula to memory, knowing that it's your new tool to have this elixir anytime, near instantly.
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon port
(1) This isn’t just a food writing cliché (this time!)—the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena suggests serving it by the spoonful as a “novel aperitif.”
(2) “It is made in factories to meet a demand that went from zero in 1977, when Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco, introduced it to the American market, to several million bottles a year currently.” —Florence Fabricant, The New York Times, October 27, 1990
(3) “Aged balsamic vinegar tastes of time itself.”—Paul Bertolli, Fine Cooking, January 2000
(4) Look for vinegars with no funny additives in the ingredients list. And check out the results of ATK's recent taste test of supermarket balsamics.
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Food52er drbabs for this one.
Photos by James Ransom