Kitchen Hacks

A Genius Way to Speed Up Time, and Instantly Age Balsamic

October  5, 2016

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.

But the test kitchen MacGyvers at America’s Test Kitchen unearthed a way to effectively hack the system. Enter: their mysteriously named “Instant Aged Balsamic,” from their recent book Kitchen Hacks.

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)

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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.

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Top Comment:
“quart of decent balsamic, open port from the bar that was getting overly oxidized and then we would mix it up for the sweetener with either sugar as you described or honey, maple, agave or piloncillo when on hand. was equally great over our famous pink peppercorn ice-cream as it was on mesclun greens !”
— Matt H.
Comment

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) 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 [email protected]. Thanks to Food52er drbabs for this one.

Photos by James Ransom

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20 Comments

Annie C. January 11, 2017
This drizzled on top of strawberry ice cream is a dream come true.
 
Victoria C. November 21, 2016
I find that Madeira keeps so much longer than Port. Do you think you could substitute it?
 
Timothy D. November 21, 2016
Different flavor profile, not sure it'd work as well.
 
Sharon November 21, 2016
Of course you can substitute Madeira. Marsala, too. I've made balsamic reductions for decades without the addition of port or ANY wine and it's been delicious. Madeira certainly won't ruin it. Who knows, it might even taste better! Cooking is not a robotic task. Enjoy the journey.
 
Emiliano F. October 11, 2016
can someone tell me if I can prep this and leave it in storage? for how long? thanks!
 
Sharon October 12, 2016
Absolutely. It keeps in the refrigerator practically forever. After all, it is a vinegar and microbes don't mess around with vinegars. I keep mine in a small jar in the fridge. If you're in the least bit concerned, just sterilize the jar and lid with boiling water first. You will have to bring the cold balsamic reduction to room temperature before using, so keep that in mind, and It will probably need a few drops of hot tap water to make it fluid enough to pour or drizzle.
 
Tazmin A. October 10, 2016
Ah... two of my great loves: Aged balsamic and a good port. I LOVE a finely aged tawny! I've been drinking it for decades when I first discovered it as I rolled from one vineyard to the next with my fellow 20-something backpackers in Porto. I can't wait to try this! Thank you!
 
Sharon October 9, 2016
Restaurant chefs have been doing this for years. Even without the added port it comes out great. You just have to reduce it VERY slowly, keep an eye on it, and don't take it to that inky, black, bitter stage. I swirl a pat of cold butter in at the end and drizzle it over an order of garlic-roasted asparagus. Very popular as an appetizer and quite delicious.
 
Linda October 9, 2016
I haven't tried it, but I wonder if using Port Balsamic vinegar (O Olive Oil is one source) would work if you don't have the port.
 
Jan W. October 9, 2016
Great recipe & technique, but I'm not sure if any good comes from portraying xanthan gum and guar gum as strange artificial ingredients - they're not. Guar gum is little more than a flour made from guar beans, which are eaten and widely cultivated in the Indian subcontinent for millenia. Xanthan gum is basically a bacterial fermentation byproduct, the same sort of thing that allows cheeses to be made without animal rennet. If you can eat yogurt, sour cream, most types of bread, or vegetarian cheese, you can eat xanthan gum without much issue.
 
Matt H. October 6, 2016
Great kitchen tip for the home cook! However.. We did this EXACT same reduction waaaaay back during my line cook days at Goodfellows in Minneapolis (1997 to 1999)! 1 quart of decent balsamic, open port from the bar that was getting overly oxidized and then we would mix it up for the sweetener with either sugar as you described or honey, maple, agave or piloncillo when on hand. was equally great over our famous pink peppercorn ice-cream as it was on mesclun greens !
 
HelloThereNicole October 6, 2016
I used to go to a restaurant that would put balsamic reduction on their tomato soup, it was soooo good. So I started making balsamic reductions at home and I used almost exactly this recipe. It's super easy and delicious!
 
Fresh T. October 5, 2016
This reminds me of Alexandra Stafford's/SallySchneider's recipe for making Balsamic Caramel. It's just slightly different. (oh, and it's amazing.) http://www.alexandracooks.com/2013/02/06/pan-seared-oven-finished-new-york-strips-with-balsamic-caramel/
 
SpinachInquisition October 5, 2016
I've clicked through most of the links looking for which type of port you (or ATK) used... tawny? ruby? does it matter? Do you recommend one flavor profile over the other?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. October 5, 2016
Great question—I used ruby for most of my testing, but tawny would also work well (just a little fancier).
 
Timothy D. October 5, 2016
ATK doesn't make a suggestion. I used vintage port because that's what I had open.
 
SpinachInquisition October 5, 2016
Excellent, thanks!
 
Timothy D. October 5, 2016
I've done this. It's outstanding.
 
Barbara R. October 5, 2016
Lynn Rossetto Kasper/Splendid Table recommends just using a small amount of brown sugar to the bottle.
 
witloof October 5, 2016
I keep a cheap bottle of balsamic around for exactly this purpose. It's so great when you add a little sugar and boil it down to a thick glaze to coat broccoli or brussels sprouts. I will try it with the port.