Artisanal balsamic vinegar… not

July 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm (Cook's Illustrated, Dessert, Ice cream & toppings, Italian, Sauce/dressing, Summer recipes, unrated)

We had friends over for dinner the other night, and Derek wanted to make a summery dessert.  He decided on panna cotta. He considered making green tea or earl grey panna cotta, but in the end he decided that he shouldn’t mess around on his first attempt, and made plain vanilla panna cotta.  He thought it sounded a bit boring though, and so he decided to top the panna cotta with fresh strawberries and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  I only had cheap supermarket balsamic vinegar though, and so we decided to reduce it to make it sweeter, less harsh, and more syrupy.

Cook’s Illustrated reports that a straight reduction of 1/3 cup of vinegar and 1 tablespoon of sugar works well enough, but the addition of 1 tablespoon of port adds complexity.  They recommend barely simmering the mixture for 30 to 40 minutes over extremely low heat, as vigorous boiling “destroys the nuances in the vinegar’s flavor”.  They reduce to about half of the original volume.

In tests, we achieved a similar flavor profile in supermarket balsamic by reducing 1/3 cup with 1 tablespoon port and 1 tablespoon sugar over low heat until it measures half its original volume. CI says that most tasters could distinguish this reduction from a traditional, 12-year-old balsamic, the homemade drizzling vinegar was surprisingly good.

We followed CI’s advice (except I used 1/2 cup vinegar rather than 1/3 cup), and indeed the balsamic glaze was delicious with the strawberries and panna cotta.  I was worried that the (very strong) syrup would overwhelm the delicate flavors of the vanilla panna cotta, but I actually loved the acidity and brightness it contributed to the creamy base.

If you do want to spend a lot on real artisanal balsamic vinegar, CI recommends Cavalli Gold Seal Extra Vecchio Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, at 60 dollars per ounce!  If you don’t want to blow that much money, they also liked Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico ($14.00 for 8.5 ounces) and Monari Federzoni Balsamic Vinegar of Modena ($3.39 for 16.5 ounces).

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