Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar

Fragole all’aceto balsamico (Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar)

In dessert, Emilia-Romagna by Frank40 Comments

As I’ve written about before, dessert in our house tends to be nothing but a piece of fruit. But once in a while, I like to jazz things up a bit. And, truth be told, even if they usually look appetizing, most fruit in these times of industrial agriculture needs help in the flavor department. Strawberries are a case in point. A juicy, sweet, ruby red ripe strawberry is a miracle of nature. The ones you’re likely to find in the typical supermarket, however plump and ripe they may look on the shelf, turn out to be underripe and almost tasteless when you bite into them. It’s a story reminiscent of what’s happened to the tomato.

One easy and effective way to coax some flavor out of mediocre fruits is to macerate them. In this classic dessert from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar, the usual Italian method for macerating fruit in sugar and lemon juice, which we’ve seen in our post on Italian Fruit Salad, is taken up a notch in the simplest but most exquisite way: with a drizzle of fine balsamic vinegar. It’ll turn even the most insipid supermarket strawberries into something worth eating, good strawberries into something remarkable. And if you’re lucky enough to have access to wild strawberries—fragoline di bosco in Italian—you’re in for a superb treat.

If you’ve never tasted real balsamic vinegar, it will be a revelation

If you’ve never real tasted balsamic vinegar, it will be a revelation—syrupy, glossy and deep brown in color, with rich and complex, almost smokey sweet and sour flavor, balsamic vinegar is unlike any vinegar you’ve ever tasted before. Sadly, it has been a victim of its own success. Balsamic vinegar became so popular after it was introduced into the US and elsewhere in the late 1970s that pretty soon cheap imitations appeared. What most people know as “balsamic vinegar” today is not the real thing at all. And there was a point—was it back in the 1980s?—that balsamic vinegar got drizzled on just about every restaurant dish from appetizer to dessert, as a lazy way to signal “refinement” to customers. Allergic as I am to food as fashion, that turned me off to balsamic vinegar for years.

More recently I’ve begun to reconsider. After all, aceto balsamico tradizionale has been around for nearly a thousand years. The fact it became a fad, then faded, tells us nothing, really, about its true merits. The very best traditionally made balsamic vinegar can be prohibitively expensive, but there are decent, middle-range brands that are affordable for every day cooking. You just need to take some care about what you’re buying. See the Notes below for background.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 500g/1 lb. strawberries
  • 2-3 Tbs. superfine caster sugar
  • A drizzle of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Balsamic vinegar, q.b.

Directions

Trim the strawberries of their tops. If they are large, cut them into halves or, if they are very large, into quarters. If they are fairly small, you can leave them whole.

Place the strawberries in a mixing bowl and toss them with the sugar and a drizzle of lemon juice, just enough to moisten them. Let them macerate for about 20-30 minutes, or until the sugar has completely melted and the strawberries have darken a bit in color and taken on a pretty sheen.

Arrange the strawberries in serving bowls and drizzle the Balsamic vinegar over them. Serve immediately.

Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar

Notes on Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar

Depending on the ripeness and quality of your strawberries, you may want to macerate them longer than indicated in the recipe above. Some recipes call for several hours of maceration—the less ripe and more insipid the strawberries you’re working with, the longer the maceration should be. There is a trade-off, however, as the strawberries soften as they macerate. Strawberries that are already ripe will practically turn to mush if they are left too long. Many recipes for Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar, by the way, will tell you to actually macerate the strawberries in the vinegar itself, rather than lemon juice. I’ve tried this method, too, and do like it. The resulting dish has even richer flavor than the one we’ve featured here, but is not quite as pretty, since the strawberries will darken quite a bit—good eating, but not quite as bloggable. Finally, some recipes call for a dollop of whipped cream on top of your Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar. That’s what I call gilding the lily.

The long story of balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar has been around for a very long time. There are references to it going back to 1046, when a bottle of the precious elixir was presented to Holy Roman Emperor Henry III as he passed through Modena on his way to his coronation. It is produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, more specifically in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

Balsamic vinegar

I do like this balsamic vinegar from Fattoria Estense, aged 12 years, which I picked up at Williams-Sonoma. It set me back $30 for a small 250g bottle.

The true balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico tradizionale, carries a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) designation, which guarantees its quality, production, and place of origin. It is made by reducing pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes into a syrupy must, called mosto cotto in Italian; the grape must is then aged a minimum of 12 years—the best are aged 25 years or more—in successively small wooden barrels, which gives it its dark color and complex flavor profile.  Traditional balsamic vinegar is very expensive. Even the least costly small bottle I could find online is priced at $160, and the best can cost up to $200 an ounce.

Much more affordable is the factory-made aceto balsamico di Modena, still quite expensive compared with ordinary vinegars, but affordable. It carries a IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) designation, which certifies its place of origin only. You will find an enormous range of price and quality among brands in this class of balsamic vinegar. Some can be aged as little 2 months, but others are aged for years like the traditional variety. Look for the term invecchiato on the label, which means it has been aged at least three years.  For most of us, this is the practical choice. But I’d avoid the least expensive brands, which are aged only minimally and mix grape must with regular vinegar; these ersatz balsamics are darkened with caramel coloring and thickened artificially with guar gum or cornstarch.

Balsamic vinegars have also inspired other spin-offs, including condimento balsamico (a kind of middle ground between the traditional and industrial versions of the produce) as well as a vast myriad of imitations and related products—including balsamic ketchup (!?) I haven’t tried any of these, so can’t really recommend them one way or another. Personally, though, I’d keep it simple and stick with an aceto balsamico tradizionale or a good quality aceto balsamico di Modena.

 

Fragole all’aceto balsamico (Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar)

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6

Fragole all’aceto balsamico (Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar)

Ingredients

  • 500g/1 lb. strawberries
  • 2-3 Tbs. superfine caster sugar
  • A drizzle of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Balsamic vinegar, q.b.

Instructions

  1. Trim the strawberries of their tops. If they are large, cut them into halves or, if they are very large, into quarters. If they are fairly small, you can leave them whole.
  2. Place the strawberries in a mixing bowl and toss them with the sugar and a drizzle of lemon juice, just enough to moisten them. Let them macerate for about 20-30 minutes, or until the sugar has completely melted and the strawberries have darken a bit in color and taken on a pretty sheen.
  3. Arrange the strawberries in serving bowls and drizzle the Balsamic vinegar over them. Serve immediately.
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Comments

  1. Truly a dessert straight from the heavens or ER. I use my Traditional Balsamic sparingly as it should be used, a few drops over fresh strawberries of a lively grill veal chop…sublime.

  2. Sometimes, when we read your posts, we find ourselves thinking the EXACT same way about certain things:) For instance, when you said “It’s a story reminiscent of what’s happened to the tomato.” for the supermarket tomatoes, we couldn’t agree more. As well as fads like the “Balsamic” trend that also got replicated here in the 00’s.
    The only solution for us was buying in farmers markets and organic produce stores. Plus, we have the privilege of growing our own -heirloom- veggies at Panos’ parents country house in Evia island.
    As for the balsamic vinegar, we only buy it directly from small, domestic producers who do have high quality stuff. The Italian balsamic which is imported here, is unfortunately industrial grade and isn’t much good…Wish we could taste the real stuff. We will however visit Modena (it’s in our travel plans) and we will taste the real thing:)
    As for the recipe, we never tried a similar combo before and we both like strawberries (plus they’re still in season) 🙂 So, we’ll be giving this a try pretty soon:)
    Sending you lots of greetings from sunny Athens!
    Mirella and Panos

    1. Author

      Sorry to hear that the same sad story is playing out in Greece… but happy to hear you’re lucky enough to be able to grown your own produce. How wonderful! By the way, I just Googled Evia Island. It looks gorgeous!

  3. Like you, Frank, I have avoided this for years – somewhat because of the over-popularity of balsamic vinegar here in the U.S., but also because I could never belief an unripe strawberry could be saved. You – because I trust you implicitly with my palate – will have me giving this a try this week.

  4. We usually buy strawberries only for about 2 months out of the year, so what we buy usually have decent flavor. Usually. 🙂 But you’re right: sometimes they need help, and if you’re buying them out of season they definitely need help. Balsamic and strawberries is an awesome combo! When we have flavor-challenged strawberries, we sometimes roast them first, then macerate them. And also make a balsamic dressing. Dynamite stuff! As is this post — thanks.

    1. Author

      That’s the best strategy for sure, but at least around here even when they’re “in season” supermarket strawberries are tasteless or nearly so—unless you’re buying them in the farmers market, of course.

  5. Beautiful! And by the way, the balsamic thing hasn’t stopped. It’s almost comical for me, because my husband dislikes vinegar of any kind, and no matter what he orders, and no matter what he asks of the waiter, his dishes come to him slathered in balsamic vinegar. Even non-Italian dishes, which I actually ended up writing a whole blog post about, because it wasn’t mentioned on the menu and had no business being on the luncheon dish.

    1. Author

      Ha! I’m sorry to hear that, Mimi. And I couldn’t agree more—they should warn you about such travesties!

  6. Pingback: Gelato: The Basic Recipe | Memorie di Angelina

  7. This looks like a delicious, yet simple recipe. I can’t wait to try with my family! Thank you!!

  8. here in London a seven-eight years aceto balsamico IGP costs around 10 pounds and it is pleasant enough. I am lucky because I am not a great fan of balsamic vinegar (to the point that few yrs back I left my bottle of tradizionale dry in my cupboard, ouch!!). Unfortunately here in the UK balsamic vinegar has become shorthand for “Italian food” and it appears in almost every “Italian” recipe : as a consequence the market has been flooded with cheap and nasty so called balsamic. At the same time, it is almost impossible to find good quality wine vinegars (apart from Spanish sherry vinegar): when I was living in Italy I used to treat myself to the vinegars of Cesare Giaccone / truly artisanal stuff that was a revelation (the barolo vinegar, for instance.. ah… !! excellent) / highly recommended http://www.acetodibarolo.it/aceto-di-barolo-profile.htm

    + going back to yr strawberries, I sometimes add also some black pepper too: it gives a nice unusual nuance to the straws…

    1. Author

      Barolo vinegar sounds awesome (but pricey, I assume…) And I like the idea of black pepper—may try it today!

  9. It’s absolutely true what you say on the lack of flavor of strawberries, or tomatoes, and that macerating them can bring some flavor back (my dad loves strawberries in red wine!)

    Italian supermarkets (or even street markets, for that matter) also sell products of industrialized agriculture. But somehow fruit and vegetables still taste better in Italy, as they do in France or Spain. From what I gather, it has to do with the “scale” of the operation – in those regions, produce doesn’t have to travel very far, and as a result it can ripen on the vine (and in the sun) for longer. Of course, this is the secret of farmers markets, and of anything you can grow yourself if you’re lucky to have an orchard 🙂

    1. Author

      Indeed, once tried growing my own strawberries. Unfortunately there are too many deer around here, so not one made it to my table… 🙁

  10. We do berry salads all summer long – they grow beautifully in Minnesota and we usually do nothing to dress them. But this is a beauty – I’ve done it once or twice and you are nudging me to try it again.

  11. we also have balsamic soy now, in the coop supermarket in rural Umbria! where is the world going one wonders? Bravo Frank for reminding everyone about the real thing, fresh ripe fruit and a century old condiment, a marriage made in heaven.

  12. And just imagine what that balsamic would do if using local in-season berries! Can hardly wait. I picked up a tiny bottle of Vino Cotto in Chianti and it works very well on strawberries as well. Ruth Reichl talks about roasting those California on steroid strawberries to bring out their flavour…thinking that may be a good idea as well. Here’ to strawberry season! Sometimes I put a grind of black pepper on them.

  13. I really believe food has been over processed and hybridized so that it does plants do produce but without flavor. Strawberries are HUGE but they don’t taste like anything I remember from my youth. And I do remember my mamma macerating the fruit such as strawberries or peaches. It was our dessert and I remember the delicious flavor and aroma. I’m not an expert on balsamic vinegar so I’ll have to look up William Sonoma. Great post, Frank! Have a great weekend.

  14. Qui in Italia il primo a far conoscere le fragole con l’aceto balsamico fu il grande attore e buongustaio Ugo Tognazzi, la ricetta è riportata in uno dei suoi libri di cucina. Piatto all’inizio guardato con molto sospetto è diventato negli anni un must…Buon we Frank

    1. Author

      Interessante! Non sapevo che Tognazzi fosse anche un buongustaio ma non mi stupisce.

  15. Well done Frank – excellent education on Balsamic, you only need but a few drops. Strawberry season is going into full swing here and a local farm stand has the sweetest berries with a perfect texture.

  16. Frank – You’re so right about those mealy strawberries. I’ve given up on buying them in the winter and even in season, the supermarket brands are inferior to what you can find at farmer’s markets.
    Ever since visiting the acetaia San Giacomo a few years ago, not far from my relatives, in Emilia-Romagna, I got spoiled by the real deal they make there. I bought a bottle years ago (it cost more than $100) but I parse it out ever so judiciously to only special people who realize its worth. It’s such a complex and caramel-y flavor and pairs so well with parmesan cheese or strawberries. I think I’ll break it out when I see some decent local strawberries, which should be very soon, I hope.

  17. Balsamic vinegar is in the same category as olive oil, in that the labels can be really deceiving. Thanks for the tips, and for sharing this classic recipe. I’ve sworn off those cottony supermarket strawberries. Driscoll has really ruined fruit ~ not just strawberries, but also raspberries, IMO (I guess I’ll never be asked to be a Driscoll “ambassador” LOL). Their strawberries are as big as limes and have no flavor; and their raspberries are as big as strawberries and also have no flavor, or juice. People need to get to the farmers’ market if they want to know what real berries taste like. Thankfully, it’s spring and strawberries are coming into season. My little farmers’ market starts up again next week, so I’m looking forward to making this. (Apologies for the rant ~ this is one of my pet peeves.)

    1. Author

      You and me both, Domenica! Is it really to much to ask for fruits and vegetables that taste just a little like they’re supposed to taste? My big question is: Why do consumers accept such low quality produce? As long as they’re buying, companies like Driscoll will be selling.

  18. I have recently discovered the robust flavor of Balsamic Vinegars. The first is the Naples (FL) Olive Oil Company. They offer their products online and have a reasonably priced 12 yr bottle. The second I found in the Reading Terminal Market (Philadelphia PA). I cannot remember the name, but again they had a 12 yr bottle. While these two varieties do not come from Italy, they are quality products crafted with care and detail. I would recommend either over most market shelf brands.

    1. Author

      I’ll have to check those products out when I have a chance. Thanks for the tips, Justin.

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