I’m a cheapskate and basically lazy. While developing a recipe for slow cooker lentil soup, I decided to finish it with balsamic glaze, a concentrated form of balsamic vinegar.
One on-line lentil soup recipe had such a glaze with a link to what I thought would be an easy recipe. No such luck. Instead, it linked to expensive store-bought versions.
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 $7-$15 a bottle for bit of syrup to add at the end of a soup recipe. Plus, I didn’t want to interrupt my soup-making to search for the glaze when balsamic vinegar is one of my pantry staples.
After consulting several sources, I concluded that no one source adequately described the process. So I wrote it up myself, with cautions on what not to do, as well as advice on cleaning 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. Some recipes do include a bit of sugar or honey, but I find that addition unnecessary. Often called balsamic reduction or reduced balsamic vinegar, it has a syrupy consistency.
Perfect for drizzling on vegetables or brushing on fish or poultry before cooking, the glaze is also great in a marinade when you want a stronger balsamic flavor than the plain vinegar provides. Adding a tablespoon or two of balsamic glaze enhances the flavor of soups, especially lentil, split pea or other dark bean-based soups or chilis.
Five Tips for Making 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 glass container, then warmed the glaze in the microwave before using it.
- The vinegar reduces in volume by a half – Start with a minimum 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 below shows balsamic vinegar 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. )
Sugar-free Balsamic Glaze
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (dark, not white balsamic)
Put the vinegar in a small,heavy pan with sloping sides.
Under a medium-low light, slowly bring the vinegar to a simmer. Whisking constantly, keep it at a low simmer until the volume is reduced by half and the balsamic starts to thicken. The entire process takes about 10 minutes from the time you heat the pan until the balsamic is reduced to a syrupy glaze.
Remove the reduced vinegar from the heat and pour into a heat-proof container for storage or use immediately.
Refrigerate unused glaze and warm before using it.