Alright, I hope everyone is ready for the best salad that has ever been created! It’s easily the simplest, tastiest, most addicting salad that you’ll probably ever try. Oh man, I sincerely hope you’ve had this before. If you haven’t, please let me know so I can unfriend you.
It’s been a long time coming, getting this on the blog. I’ve made it numerous times and had multiple opportunities to document and create a post. But there’s always one thing that stopped me… The balsamic reduction.
Not because it’s complicated, I mean truly, it has to be one of the simplest, most delicious secrets of the kitchen. I think I’ve been avoiding it because balsamic vinegar is kind of a big deal. One would think all condiments are created equal. But as it turns out, balsamic vinegar is so important, there are laws regulating what can be called traditional balsamic vinegar.
See, that’s where my struggle lies. A simple sauce deriving from a complex creation. If you’ve had it or you’re just curious, you deserve to know the truth. If you think you can go on living the rest of your life as you know it without learning how it’s done, then I’m not here to change your mind. I won’t even shove the information in your face. Why?
Because what if I told you you had a choice?
You can take the blue pill and let the simplicity of balsamic reduction reflect here, with me just telling you how simple it is to make while leaving your mind uncluttered with the details of reality…
Or you can take the red pill, and follow me down the rabbit hole that goes deep into the processes of balsamic vinegar and how it’s created, opening your eyes to a mystical wonderland that is the real world…
I get it, why do you need to know such details? You know balsamic vinegar is great and you just go to a store and buy it. I will not judge you based on your decision, but just know, balsamic vinegar is a big deal Not really here, but in Italy it’s treated with respect. Here, you can buy a bottle of flavored cooking wine labeled as balsamic vinegar and you think you’re getting the real deal. You’re not. Don’t be fooled by imitation stuff. Read the labels, look for grape must as the first ingredient. Make sure it’s imported from Modena or Reggio Emilia. And most of all, that it was aged. This is where balsamic vinegar gets its robust flavor. I buy a big bottle of the stuff from BJ’s for $9, so it’s not something that will break the bank. Just got to know what you’re shopping for.
If you’ve been to the salad dressing aisle at the store, odds are you noticed the dozens of bottles of balsamic vinegar. Most of them fairly affordable, but 2 or 3 with a price tag you don’t see yourself paying for such a small bottle of stuff. Now, I’m not here to tell you those are the bottles you should be buying, because I sure as heck don’t, but I am here to tell you prices like that are not uncommon to bottles of balsamic vinegar.
You may have heard it somewhere else, but I know you’ve at least heard it from me – balsamic vinegar is important. It’s special. It’s not your typical, manufactured condiment. Well, here it is, for the most part. But in Modena and Reggio Emilia – two old towns in Italy – it is much, much more. They’ve been producing balsamic vinegar since the middle ages and have such a respect for the traditional ways it’s produced, people around the world will easily, and without second thought, pay upwards of $500 for a 3.5 ounce bottle.
Stuff is serious, you think I’m playing. This is why you need to know balsamic is a big deal.
While you’ll never see a bottle of that quality in your local Wal-Mart, it’s always great to know they exist. That type of traditional balsamic vinegar – or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale as it’s called – is made in such a way that no one here would even know how to properly use it. I mean, it’s something you should sip as if it were a fine liqueur, not whisk up in your favorite vinaigrette recipe. The production process for a bottle can take up to 150 years. You may be familiar with the Solera process that is also used for whiskeys, brandys, and other alcoholic beverages. To break it down, typically, Trebbiano grapes are boiled down to a must then added to a barrel along with a mother vinegar – a starter, if you will – and is left to age. But that’s not it! There are rooms full of casks, with each cask getting progressively smaller than the first. After the completion of the aging process – which must take a minimum of 12 years and go up to 150 years – vinegar is taken from the smallest cask for use, and is then replaced with the contents of the cask before it. That cask’s contents is then replaced with vinegar from the cask before it and so on until fresh, new grape must is added to the first cask to continue the process all over again. In theory, traces of the first batch placed in the casks may be present even after 100 cycles. As if this process wasn’t enough, each cask is made of a different type of wood – mulberry, a cacia, juniper, chestnut, oak, cherry, ash – so in the end, the vinegar is packed with so many different flavors from the woods, the complexity of the end product is mind boggling.
There are so many laws regarding balsamic vinegar in Italy, one would think it silly. Like the caps and labels when it comes to aceto balsamico tradizionale, for instance, are there for reasons. If the vinegar comes from Reggio Emilia, the label colors signify how long it’s been aged. If the vinegar comes from Modena, the cap is what’s used to indicate. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena also has to be sold in a specific bottle as per the guidelines of consortia regulations.
Of course, that leaves us with the mystery of what we buy for $5 at the store. Yes, it’s what we know as balsamic vinegar and we’re all fine with it. But when it comes down to it, is it worth it to pay the few dollars extra for the better bottle?
The answer is always yes.
Look at the label. Cheaper balsamics add things like cooking wine, brown sugar, or caramel to try and push itself off as a top-shelf vinegar. You’ll want to find one that states it’s imported from Reggio Emilia or Modena, that it has grape must as the first ingredient on the label, and most importantly, that it has been aged. The age is the important factor here as that’s how the vinegar builds its flavor.
Finding a bottle like this near home won’t break your wallet. I buy that 1 liter bottle from BJ’s for $10 and it works just fine. No complaints from me. I use it for reductions, sauces, vinaigrettes, marinades, whatever. Just be sure to look out for the cheaper ones as those are about as far from balsamic as you can get.
Whatever path you chose, it has led you here. To you, and me… about to get our caprese on!
If there’s one thing you have to love about this salad, it has to be its simplicity. With only 5 ingredients, this is easily something you would have no problem enjoying every day. Balsamic reduction is definitely the main focus here, so it’s good to understand how it works. Just like the rest of the salad, it’s incredibly easy, despite what pricey restaurants try to tell you. Sure, the price reflects the quality and age of the vinegar, but as I said, I go with a $10 bottle at BJ’s for home use and never complain about it.
When it boils down to it (haha boils..), all you’re doing is reducing a liquid. If you didn’t know that, there’s not much more I can do to help you. You probably hear about reducing sauces and stocks all the time. It’s a very simple technique – adding a liquid to something and letting it simmer till most of what was there evaporates away, leaving you with a more concentrated product than what you started with. But you’ll be amazed how many people don’t take the time for it. It really is as simple as just letting it simmer till it reduces, yet, it’s looked at as if it’s complex.
How easy is it? Let’s see…
1 each – Tomato
1 each – Fresh Mozzarella, ball
drizzle – Extra Virgin Olive Oil
drizzle – Balsamic Reduction
to taste – Salt and Pepper
1 cup – Balsamic Vinegar
- One good sized tomato and one good sized ball of mozzarella is enough for the wife and I to both have 3 slices of each. Typically, that’s the serving for the salad.
- You can find fresh mozzarella in the specialty cheese case at your supermarkets deli/produce area. Again, I buy mine in a 3 pack at BJ’s for $8.
- I used a small handful of mixed greens on the bottom of the salad.
- Rule of thumb: Reducing your amount of vinegar by half is good enough for a syrup consistency. You can go more, and it’ll be thicker and even sweeter, so it’s up to you, but by half works well for starting at 1 cup.
- Basil is optional, but please include it. It’s the DJ’s bumpin’ base to the party that’s going on in your mouth.
- And for the love of all that is holy, whatever you do, don’t stick your face in the vapors of the evaporating vinegar. I know, that’s like saying “don’t look down!” but at least now you can never say I didn’t warn you.
Alright, you guys ready? I know with all the ingredients it looks so complicated, I’ll go slow.
- First thing to do is the reduction. Pour your vinegar in a cold pot and turn it up to med-high heat. Be mindful of where the top of the vinegar is sitting in the pot. How close it is to the screws of the handle is usually the best place to measure. Keep it in mind so you can tell how much has evaporated later.
You want it to simmer, not really boil.
If you put the heat up too high and let it sit there to reduce then.. well.. bad things happen.
- Let it simmer for about 10 minutes. The vapors will be filling the air in the shape of skulls and bones, the vinegar will be dancing the dance of its people and it’ll reduce away. You’ll notice by not only seeing where the top of the vinegar sits in the pan (if you saw where it was when you first put it in), or you can tell by the coat it leaves on a spoon or even the bottom of the pan when you tilt it over.
- It’s a hot liquid right now so you can’t tell exactly how syrup-like it is. But pour it in a container and put it aside for a bit and you’ll see the fruit of your labors soon. I put mine in the fridge for a few and it’s fine.
After that’s done you can start cutting your stuff.
- Slice your tomato and mozzarella in uniform slices. This is ideal for presentation, so if you’re just going to be shoving this in your face then don’t worry about being uniform.
- Now, Season. Next to the reduction, seasoning the tomato and cheese is probably the next most important part of the dish. I don’t know if you’ve ever had tomato or fresh mozzarella, but there is a world of difference between seasoned and unseasoned. Since it’s easier, I lay all the slices out on the cutting board and do it there in one shot.
- Sprinkle the salt, grind the pepper, and try not to eat anything yet. Don’t forget to flip all the slices over and give that side some love too.
- At this point, depending on the condition of your reduction, you should be ready to plate. So go ahead and get a small bed of mixed greens on a plate. On top of that, put a tomato, then some cheese, and a basil leaf. Repeat in the same order till the tower is 6 high – 3 tomato and 3 cheese.
Now, check out your balsamic reduction. Does it look like this?
If it does, then you’re a winner! If it doesn’t, it’s probably a little warm still. Let it cool down some more and you should be good.
- Once your reduction is ready, you’re in the home stretch! Just drizzle some olive oil.
- Then drizzle some balsamic reduction…
And next thing you know you’re the happiest person on the block.
Do you understand now, when I say “simple”? It’s just tomatoes and cheese with a little bit of oil and sauce. Yet, the combination is so fresh, so traditional, so perfect, nothing else is needed. Like, ever.
I really hope this made you realize how easy this dish is to put together. It seems like it should be a special occasion kind of salad or appetizer, and I can totally get down with that. It’s Valentine’s Day afterall so it would be a great little way to spruce up that romantic meal. But it doesn’t have to be just for special days. Fan out the slices of tomato and cheese on a plate and call it a day, no one will care, trust me. Just get it in your belly, that’s all that matters.
How are you liking the gifs? I’m still loving it! Makes the blogs come alive, I think.
I could’ve posted this weeks ago. But I figured I’d wait till now. Caprese Salad is my mom’s favorite and Valentine’s Day is her birthday. So I thought I’d post this now as a celebration of sorts. Happy birthday, mom!