Aged balsamic vinegar is the new “must-have” ingredient for unexpected flavor pairings and innovative desserts.
Named for its curative properties, balsamic vinegar was once revered as a magical cure for everything from toothaches to heartaches. It was doled out sparingly and lovingly as the key to fixing the worst of ailments. Today, pastry chefs are exploring the many ways that balsamic vinegar can be used as an ingredient, reinvigorating classic flavors and creating new ones.
Balsamic vinegar, which is still being produced and enjoyed in the Reggio Emilia and Modena regions of Italy after hundreds of years, is made from grape must, the fresh pressings of white grapes. Historically, balsamic vinegar was passed on from one generation to the next in a series of progressively smaller wooden casks; as it ages, balsamic vinegar gets thicker and develops a fuller and more complex flavor. In Italy, the highly-prized vinegar was and still is enjoyed as an aperitif and atop fresh strawberries, or used to enhance the flavor of Parmesan cheese.
One of the earliest historical references to balsamic vinegar comes from 1046, when it is said that a small bottle was given as a gift to the soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor Enrico the III of Franconia, as he passed through the province of Reggio-Emilia on his way to Rome. Once available only to Italy’s highest nobility, balsamic vinegar became commercially available in the United States in the 1970s, and has been gaining popularity ever since.
According to Lori Levy, founder of My Global Table, LLC, which imports Giuseppe Cremonini’s balsamic line, “While market trends have shown incredible growth in the entire balsamic category as it has become an omnipresent condiment in American gastronomy, it is the higher quality and the barrel-aged balsamic vinegars which are garnering the most growth and attention right now.” And, according to Larrian Gillespie MD, CEO of Culinary Science Investigations of Beverly Hills, these increasingly popular, barrel-aged balsamic vinegars are also best for pastry work. Though there is no real difference in the chemical components of aged versus un-aged balsamic vinegar, “For pastry work, aged vinegar is best because it is the richest in flavor and intensity, and will deliver more of an ‘umami’ response in the mouth,” she says.
Barrel-aged balsamic vinegars are now widely available in the United States. And today, creative pastry chefs are doing much more than dribbling a few drops on strawberries; they’re using the tart, sweet (and sometimes even umami) ingredient to creatively “cure” their desserts – creating balanced, unexpected, and delicious flavor pairings and profiles.
Pastry Chef Rebecca Isbell lets the flavor of barrel-aged balsamic vinegar shine in the Goat’s Milk with Buckwheat and Balsamic that she serves at Betony in New York City. “I don’t like my dessert to be too sweet,” she says. “The balsamic vinegar is the first and the last flavor in this dessert.” Formerly of Eleven Madison Park, Chef Isbell describes her dessert, which features buckwheat crumble with goat’s milk frozen yogurt and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette, as “creamy, tangy, and earthy, with a huge palette-cleansing pop of balsamic.” This dessert relies on the complex flavor of aged-balsamic vinegar as a stand-alone ingredient, that’s true flavor is still recognizable alongside the full-bodied flavors of goat’s milk and buckwheat.
At The Spence in Atlanta, Pastry Chef Andrea Kirshtein serves an Adult Mousse Cup – a Balsamic Chocolate Mousse with Roasted Graham Topping. The balsamic vinegar in her recipe serves two purposes. The thick, fruity balsamic vinegar Chef Kirshtein uses “balances the richness of the cream and stands up to the chocolate while also bringing out the red fruit notes in Valrhona’s 64% Manjari,” she explains. Chef Kirshtein, who also supports her husband Eli Kirshtein at their restaurant The Luminary located in Atlanta’s Krog Street Market, enjoys creating “grown up” versions of classic desserts, using high quality ingredients and adding twists, like the balsamic vinegar in her chocolate mousse, to create nostalgic treats that appeal to more mature palates.
At La Maison du Macaron, Chef Pascal Goupil uses aged balsamic vinegar in combination with other ingredients to create an entirely new flavor profile. He lists the ingredients in the title of his Melon, Orange Blossom, Almond, and Balsamic cream, because combined, the flavor is so unique, that it would be hard to guess the ingredients. For Chef Goupil, combining ingredients and coming up with new flavor profiles is a balancing act. And because balsamic vinegar has such a strong and distinct flavor, when working with it as an ingredient in combination with others, quantities are incredibly important. “The quantity of the vinegar in the recipe really depends on which grade of vinegar you’re using” says Chef Goupil, who uses Giuseppe Cremonini 5 Grape Balsamic Vinegar in his macarons. “Aged vinegar has a more complex flavor – not just sour, but sweet, and sometimes even umami,” he explains. Incredibly complex on its own, while also lending itself easily to flavor pairings, aged balsamic vinegar, which some have even likened to chocolate sauce, can stand alone, enhance the flavor of other ingredients, or be used in combination to create brand new flavor profiles.
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