I’m a cheapskate and basically lazy. While developing a recipe for slow cooker lentil soup (to be posted soon), I decided to finish it with a balsamic vinegar in a concentrated form known as balsamic glaze. One lentil soup recipe I found included such a glaze and had a link what I thought would be an easy recipe. No such luck. It was a link to store-bought versions that cost anywhere from $7 to $15 for a bottle.
Now, I do splurge on food items to be sure. My stash of artisan chocolates and exotic cheeses are ample evidence of that, not to mention the baking ingredients and bottles of liqueurs I have accumulated. But balsamic glaze is basically reduced balsamic vinegar and there is no way I was going to spend that kind of money for a tablespoon or two of a syrup to add at the end of a soup recipe. Plus, I’m lazy and didn’t want to interrupt my soup-making to go to the store in search of balsamic glaze when balsamic vinegar is one of my pantry staples.
After consulting several sources, I concluded that no one source adequately described the process. No matter; I wrote it up myself, with the cautions on what not to do along with the how-to, and advice on cleaning up your equipment and storing the balsamic glaze once you’re done.
First of all, what is balsamic glaze and how can you use it?
Dark balsamic vinegar (as opposed to white balsamic) is rich and lovely as an ingredient in salad dressing. My son came back from a college semester in Italy, showing me how delicious strawberries are dipped in good balsamic vinegar. He also taught us that Italians often drink a spoonful after a meal as a digestif or digestive. Getting a bit fancier, balsamic vinegar is a flavorful base for a sweetened syrup that goes well with strawberries, blueberries, peaches and ice cream. If you’ll pardon the awful photos (I promise to substitute improved photos next summer), my recipe for “Balsamic Blueberry Blast” is quite tasty.
The best balsamic vinegars are aged and some of them can be pricey. But you can find inexpensive or moderately priced brands that are quite satisfactory. The region of Modena in Italy produces some of, if not all of, the most highly prized balsamic vinegars and if you look at bottles of balsamic from that region, they have a stamp indicating that origin.
Balsamic glaze is typically unsweetened (although you will find recipes that include a small amount of sugar or honey, which I think if unnecessary) and simply a concentrated form of the vinegar. Often called balsamic reduction or reduced balsamic vinegar, it has a syrupy consistency that makes it perfect for drizzling on vegetables or brushing on fish or poultry before cooking them, or including in a marinade when you want the balsamic flavor to be stronger than it would be if you simply used the vinegar. A tablespoon or two is a marvelous flavor enhancer for soup, especially lentil, split pea or other dark bean-based soups or chilis.
Here are the five things you need to know before starting to make sugar-free balsamic glaze:
- Equipment – Use a saucepan with round sides and a whisk to help keep the vinegar moving in the pan while it condenses. The pan should heat evenly (heavy materials do that best); avoid cast iron because acidic substances such as vinegar can take off the seasoning that you work hard to build up on a cast iron pan.
- Be attentive while cooking the vinegar down – This is a quick process requiring constant stirring. A few moments answering a text or checking emails could lead to a burnt mess. As the vinegar reduces, it needs to stay at a low simmer – don’t let the vinegar get to a rolling boil.
- Know what you’ll do with the glaze once it is ready – The glaze is sticky when it’s done and stays viscous (so you can drizzle it) only while it’s warm. Choose a heat-proof container to store the excess or the full amount if you’re making it ahead of time. I used a microwaveable glass container and simply warmed the leftover glaze in the microwave before using it.
- The vinegar reduces in volume by a half – Start with a minimum amount of 1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar. That amount, when reduced, makes 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of glaze.
- The glaze is strong and sweet – The taste is complex and deep, very intense. Use it sparingly, starting with less than you think you want and tasting before adding more. The photo that compares the way the balsamic vinegar looks before and after cooking. (Compare the light vinegar on the walls of the container to the right with the thicker residue from the finished glaze on the left. Yes, I know it’s confusing that the before is on the right and the after on the left, when the photo before is the reverse. Sorry about that. )