Dear Massimo, I have a bottle of beautiful, thick, aged balsamic vinegar that was given to me as a gift. The problem is, I don't really know what to do with it. It's too dense to dress a salad with, and too expensive to throw out, so it's just sitting there gathering dust. What can I do?
Please don't throw away your balsamic vinegar. It never expires, and it's a precious thing.
Let's say it's a very high-quality balsamico that you've got. You don't ever, ever have to cook with it. It has great balance and acidity; you should use it to finish your dinner, like a Medici. Don't use a metal spoon; serve it like you'd present caviar – on a beautiful spoon made of wood, horn or shell.
If I can go a bit random for a moment: if you want to do something super-special for brunch one day, cook down a very finely sliced onion and shallot in a pan with some younger balsamico, then make an omelette or some scrambled eggs. Mix a little bit of Parmigiano into the eggs, put the onion with the younger balsamic vinegar inside, fold it over and then finish with a very thin line of the aged balsamic vinegar on top – you're gonna die.
Or crêpes. Put fresh berries inside, then put the very old vinegar on the berries. Roll up the crêpes – we call them crespelle – and serve them with vanilla ice-cream. That's a great way to end a meal.
Or, take a medium-aged balsamic vinegar, 25 years, say, and put a few drops of it into a glass, roll it around and then pour in some Champagne, Franciacorta or prosecco like a Kir Royale, a balsamic Spritz.
It doesn't have to be so fancy, either. You could also make a mayonnaise; a few drops of a very old balsamic vinegar will make an incredibly tasty mayonnaise. It's great with crudités, and it's also excellent in a burger, especially one with smoky bacon.
In truth, the age of balsamic vinegar is not so important. It can be 30, 40 or 150 years old, but just because it's older doesn't make it better. Acidity is key. It's what gives the vinegar its life. And when it's still in the barrel, that quality goes up and down over the years.
Fresh grape juice – the juice of trebbiano grapes – needs to be added to the battery (the series of barrels) every year to keep it alive. But the addition of low-quality grape juice after a poor harvest one year can affect the battery of barrels, and it can then take 10 or 15 years for the flavour to adjust again. Depending on the barrel quality that year, the same vinegar from a particular house might have been better bottled in 2015 rather than in 2016.
Time does all the work. Please don't ever buy anything called balsamic reduction or glaze. Quickly reducing balsamic vinegar to concentrate it, rather than letting it age very slowly over many years in the barrel, makes about as much sense as trying to boil caviar to make it taste better. It drives me crazy.
Oh, and you can definitely dress a salad with a very nice aged balsamic vinegar. I always do it. You just need to know the trick, and the trick is this: the vinegar goes first. Don't put the balsamic vinegar in a dressing, otherwise it slips off the leaves and pools in the bottom of the bowl. With your hands take the leaves – something quite simple, with lots of beautiful aromatic fresh herbs – and after you've washed and dried them, but before you've done anything else, rub them gently with just a few drops of the balsamic vinegar. Then add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. To finish, shave some Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. Beautiful.
Massimo Bottura is the chef and owner of Osteria Francescana, an acclaimed restaurant in Modena, Italy, the hometown of balsamic vinegar. As told to Pat Nourse.