Whenever the conversation turns to cooking, my 94-year-old grandmother loves to ask (as if she hasn’t asked it a hundred times before), “What is that vinegar called again? Ballsack?” I always answer earnestly, “Yes, Grandma, it’s called ballsack vinegar,” because I get a little tired of hearing the same hilarious “mistake” over and over again. I admit though, that if she called a sudden halt to this odd conversational tradition, I would be both disappointed and concerned. But I digress before I’ve even begun. The actual point of this post is to discuss balsamic vinegar’s history and uses, not its dubious mispronunciations.
Some balsamic background: This rich, dark, sweet-tart Italian vinegar was so cherished in the olden days that it was sometimes included in the dowries of noblewomen and bequeathed in wills. It was even used, once upon a time, as a disinfectant and pain remedy. (I can’t vouch for its ability to sanitize bathrooms or cure tennis elbow, but I can attest to its deliciousness.) Authentic, high-quality balsamic vinegar is aged for years in a secret progression of wooden barrels, each type of wood lending a particular aroma to the finished product. While the best balsamic vinegars have been aged a hundred years or more and can cost a small fortune, luxurious and somewhat more affordable 12-year-old versions are readily available in specialty food shops and high-end supermarkets. For the budget conscious, there are plenty of less expensive though still delicious versions available. Some may be made from red wine vinegar, aged in stainless steel tanks, or colored with caramel, but they still make for a tasty, multipurpose kitchen staple.
What can you do with it? This versatile culinary treasure can be used in salad dressings, sauces, marinades—even desserts and beverages. Splash it into a dish of olive oil and you’ve got a tasty dipping sauce for crusty bread. Or boil it down to a syrupy reduction and drizzle it over roasted vegetables, meat, cheese, fruit, or ice cream. (If you’re using expensive aged vinegar, which is already thick and syrupy, you can drizzle without the step of reducing it first.)
With the holidays right around the corner, you might consider a bottle of good-quality balsamic vinegar for the foodies on your gift list. In fact that’s exactly what I got for the coauthor as a wedding gift a few years back. She uses it sparingly, pulling it out of the cupboard on special occasions to drizzle over crostini with duck prosciutto and shaved Parmesan, or roasted butternut squash and crumbled blue cheese. It’s a gift that keeps on giving—at least until every last precious drop is all used up.
In closing, I’ll share this recipe adapted from our very own The Lazy Gourmet cookbook—and dedicate it to Grandma.
Pistachio Ice Cream with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar
- Category: Dessert
- ¾ pound strawberries, hulled and sliced (about 2 cups)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 pint pistachio ice cream
- ¼ cup very high-quality balsamic vinegar*
*If you can’t afford the fancy stuff, which is quite thick and syrupy, just simmer some cheap stuff in a wide saucepan until reduced to a thicker consistency.
- In a medium bowl, mix the strawberries and sugar. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until strawberries have softened and become juicy, at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.
- Scoop ice cream into 4 serving bowls or glasses, dividing evenly, and top with the strawberries.
- Drizzle vinegar over each serving.