A few weeks ago, legendary Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, irked by a food writer's suggestion to splash balsamic vinegar on fresh-picked tomatoes, took to Facebook: "There is no taste more exciting than that of a good tomato, and sometimes you want nothing more with it than a pinch of sea salt," she wrote.
And while Hazan notes she occasionally dresses tomatoes with crushed garlic, a touch of salt and red wine vinegar, she wrote: "Not balsamico."
Balsamic vinegar, the sweet-tart gift from Italy, has become America's go-to condiment, showing up in everything from ketchup to ice cream. You'd think folks in Modena, Italy, would be delighted we love one of their culinary goodies. They are, sort of.
Massimo Bottura's a Modena native, a chef with three Michelin stars for his Osteria Francescana, a top spot (No. 5) on the annual list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, a 2005 book ("Balsamic Vinegar") and a producer of vinegar (Villa Manodori Artiginale Balsamic Vinegar). He gets our fascination with the stuff, he told us. But he has a few do's and don'ts:
Do: Chop cherries and marinate them in balsamic vinegar then use to brush meat in the final cooking process; also serve as a side dish to roast or grilled lamb.
Do: Prepare a balsamic vinegar combination with greens or stone fruit, adding a little white pepper or grated ginger, grated lemon zest and even a touch of spring onions. It's savory and sweet with just enough acidity to elongate the flavor in your mouth, he says.
Do: Sear a pork filet wrapped in bacon and finish the dish with a complementary balsamic vinegar sauce. Wrap the filet in the bacon and sear it. Then take it out of the pan and wrap in foil to keep warm. Add a minced shallot and some balsamic vinegar to the pan juices, plus a dash of concentrated beef broth and a sprig of thyme. Let flavors simmer together a few minutes. Return the pork to the pan and baste with the balsamic pan juices before serving.
Don't: Heat balsamic excessively.
Don't: Drench a dish in balsamic vinegar. A few drops of extra old balsamic on a salad or over risotto adds depth and character to the dish without being too obvious or invasive.
Don't: Use it in more than one dish at a meal. "If I am serving one course with balsamic vinegar, I keep it to that - never a repetition of plates using the vinegar. That is unless I have an extra-old 30-year balsamic vinegar around to sip from a teaspoon as a digestive after a meal. You can never overdose on that elixir."
Stop the splash! Respect the power of balsamic vinegar
Chefs, cooks, foodies: Put down the balsamic vinegar. Stop splashing it on everything. Stop the madness. It has become, we fear, the most overused ingredient in America's kitchens.
How did balsamic vinegar become so ubiquitous? Chef Massimo Bottura, a native of Modena, the Italian city that considers this vinegar one of its gastronomic gifts to the world, has a few ideas.
Bottura wrote a 2005 book about it ("Balsamic Vinegar"), produces it (Villa Manodori Artigianale Balsamic Vinegar) and uses it (judiciously) at Osteria Francescana, his Modena restaurant boasting three Michelin stars.
"I understand the desire to put it everywhere because it has such an inviting flavor," he wrote in an email about a trend he's watched grow over the past 10 years.
But consider the Modenese. They stick to a fine quality balsamic vinegar (aged 15 to 30 years), using it to dress bitter greens, to finish off a Parmigiano-Reggiano risotto or a pork fillet, to drizzle on Parmigiano cheese chunks or various fruits and greens as complementary side dishes to fish or meat.
Invest in a really delicious bottle of balsamic vinegar (price tag: $30 to $50), Bottura advises, and use it for what it is: "A versatile and flavorful condiment. … I am always amazed at chefs who make these balsamic reductions that are sticky and brown with little to no flavor. The acidity is what makes the balsamic condiment so unique. Why cook that all away?"
As a rule, he avoids marinating foods in balsamic vinegar ("I just don't think it brings out the best in the vinegar or meat") and won't pour it on mozzarella or prosciutto. "(It) is too acidic for either and cancels out the flavors rather than enhances them."
On the other hand: "Peaches, raspberries and rucola (arugula) with just a touch of balsamic make a wonderful accompaniment to grilled fish."
His basic principle: "Less is more. Invest in a great product. As my grandmother always said, 'Buy the best and cry only once.' "