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The Beguiling Elixir That’s Become One Chef’s Lifelong Obsession

Back in the early 1980s, The Silver Palate changed how Americans were eating. Suddenly, everyone wanted goat cheese, arugula, and balsamic vinegar everywhere, all the time. Balsamic vinegar became one of the first foodie fads—kind of like ramps nowadays.

Before then, for thousands of years, Italians had been merrily making only a few thousand barrels a year of this precious elixir in the tiny central Italian region of Reggio Emilia. Outside of the region, it was hardly known at all. I had never heard of “balsamic vinegar” in Rome or in Tuscany, but when I moved to the US in the early 80’s, everywhere I went, people just assumed I used balsamic all the time just because it was Italian.

Italian it may have been, but like so many of Italy’s boutique and artisanal ingredients—like sun-dried tomatoes, lardo di Colonnata (cured fat back from Tuscany’s marble mountains), or colatura di Cetara (essentially fish sauce, made in the anchovy region of Cetara)—it wasn’t until modern times that anyone outside of the region really knew about it or how to use it.

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Bacon and Eggs like Never Before (Just Add Lardo)
by Emiko

With fame came demand, but traditional balsamic vinegar is made very slowly and in very small quantities. To fill the gaps in demand, unregulated factories sprang up, taking basic wine vinegar from anywhere and doctoring it with caramel and coloring to approximate the real stuff. Bottled up and sold around the world cheaply, this potion is many people’s only exposure to balsamic vinegar. It’s kind of like if everyone knew about Parmigiano Reggiano but they could only get the green cylinder cheese tubes put out by Kraft that happens to be called Parmesan.

There are similarities and they will do similar things, but one just doesn’t need to exist and the other makes you understand why anyone cares. Why should you care, you ask? Read on to find out which balsamic vinegar is right for you, and how to make the most of each type.

Aceto Balsamico Traditionale, the special stuff

Around the time that balsamic vinegar was gaining popularity, the Italians were struggling with ways to identify artisanal traditional products, to set out a definition of what made a traditional food product that product. Like wine regions, consortiums were created to define regional ingredients. Parmigiano Reggiano has one of the oldest consortiums that regulates how the cheese is made from where the cows live, to what they eat, to how the milk is heated in what vessel. Once the cheese is made, the consortium tastes it and allows the producer to label it as Parmigiano Reggiano.

The consortium for aceto balsamico tradizionale is one of the strongest and most definitive around. To be labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio:
– the grapes have to be a specific local varietal (mostly trebbiano with various other obscure native varieties allowed as well),
– the vinegar has to be cooked in a certain vessel,
– and it has to be aged in the distinctive wooden barrel system, where each year the youngest vinegar goes from the largest wooden cask to the next smaller cask made of a different kind of wood. The vinegar in that cask will have just been half emptied into a smaller barrel and so on down to the last cask—usually six to nine casks down.

Once the vinegar has achieved 12 years of age, it is allowed to be presented to the consorzio, which is the final arbitrator of what can and cannot be called aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or Reggio DOP. If it is allowed, the vinegar will be bottled up into extremely distinct small squat bottles with a bulbous base holding just 100 milliliters (about 3 ounces) and selling for around $100 for the youngest, 12-year-old version. Older vinegars that are 18 to 20 or even 25 years old are labeled either oro (gold) or extra vecchio (old) and they will cost even more: around $225.

So why would anyone spend that much money on just 3 ounces of vinegar? The vinegar really is that special and that delicious—thick, profoundly sweet-tart—but also, it keeps just about forever in a well-sealed bottle.

One of those squat bottles will easily last in a home kitchen for a year, so really it’s like buying a very expensive pair of shoes. By the time you are done with them, they will have lasted so long that they actually wind up being frugal compared to cheap pair of shoes you wear for a season and then throw out!

You also use very little at a time: It isn’t an ingredient that should disappear into a dish, but rather one that should have equal pairing with one other equally spectacular ingredient that will match and reflect the vinegar. It’s the kind of pantry ingredient I like to always have on hand because it allows me to take a really simple ingredient and turn it into something knock out glamorous for a dinner party or even just unexpected guests.

How I use aceto balsamico tradizionale:

On something salty.
* Drizzle a few drops on perfect chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and you have the perfect aperitivo

On something also sweet.
* Bring home some really special local strawberries, slice them up and drizzle a few drops over them
* Do the same with peaches or melon
* Drizzle over raspberries with a little dusting of turbinado sugar for crunch

On something creamy—the combination of sweet and just slightly sour amplifies the creaminess of the sweet.
– Drizzle over panna cotta
– Or vanilla ice cream

In drinks.
– Drop one drop in the bottom of a glass of Champagne
– In Italy, people even will taste a few drops just plain on their tongue after dinner as a palate cleanser and digestif

condimento balsamico, the everyday choice

But what do you do if you want to cook with balsamic vinegar, drizzle it over salad, or add a big slug to a slow braise? You’ll use balsamic condiment (condimento balsamico), which can either be:

  • an unformed “baby” aceto balsamico tradizionale, which has only aged between two and eight years,
  • aceto balsamico tradizionale that wasn’t approved by the consorzio,
  • or, in a few occasions, a condiment from an extremely skilled vinegar maker who, for whatever reasons, doesn’t want to submit to the rules and regulations of the consorzio.

Because in most cases it’s younger than the tradizionale and doesn’t go through the same vigorous testing, condimento will be much cheaper. Generally, you are going to look for a younger, lighter condiment to use in cooking and a darker richer one for salad dressing or vegetables. In order to pick out condimento at the market, look on the bottle specifically for the word “condimento.”

How I use condimento balsamico:

  • Dress peppery farmers market arugula with a slick of extra-virgin olive oil, crisp sea salt, and a drizzle of 6- or 8-year condiment.
  • Cook thin strips of calf or chicken liver with a nice light young condimento splashed in and left to reduce to a sauce.
  • Make a fine spring vegetable soup with a little condiment cooked along with the broth to give an undercurrent of flavor and depth to the dish.
  • Make a creamy Parmigiano or Pecorino cheese risotto with a thick slug aged condimento to top for the eater to swirl in.

igp, the one I just don't know about

Finally, because every business wants to produce enough product to match demand, we come to the most controversial grade of balsamic vinegar: Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP. It has fewer restrictions than aceto balsamico tradizionale DOP. It can be made from any grapes really, not just local varieties, and it only has to be aged for two months in the region of Modena.

Obviously, that allows for a great deal of variety in the final product—some of the people I most respect in the world of Italian gastronomy swear that all Aceto Balsamico IGP di Modena is garbage. But some say it’s a good option, and not as bad as that seven-dollar bottle from the supermarket that really has nothing to do with the traditional product. My opinion? If it has the IGP seal, it’s probably good, but personally I’m sticking with tradizionale and condimento.


If you find all this confusing and hard to follow, take heart! I have studied, cooked, and eaten Italian food professionally for 25 years and I had to really root around talking with importers and experts to even begin to make sense of it all. When I lived in Italy, we used to joke that Italy is an Anarchist society, but sometimes I think it might really be true.

Hand Crush Your Tomatoes, Says Julia Turshen (+ Other Bits of Kitchen Wisdom)

This week, members of our Cookbook Club submitted questions they wanted to ask Julia Turshen, the author of this month’s featured book, Small Victories. She answered queries on everything from why it’s worth taking the time to hand crush tomatoes (instead of just starting with crushed tomatoes) to what her go-to cookbook is.

Read on to see her answers on cooking, cookbooks, and don’t forget to vote for what cookbooks the Cookbook Club covers next.

A good morning for Perfume Genius and chilaquiles. ✨

A post shared by Julianne (@scarybrownstein) on

On Cooking

Sonia Hawkins: What’s your favorite kind of food?

Julia Turshen: My favorite kind of food is anything I get to eat while I’m sitting next to my wife. 


Chrissy Francis: Why should I hand crush whole tomatoes instead of using crushed to start?

Julia Turshen: I think the whole tomatoes tend to be a higher-quality product (crushed aren’t usually just straightforward crushed tomatoes, but rather the bits and pieces leftover from tomato processing). Plus it’s so fun to get your hands messy. And you get to keep them from being too crushed (I like irregular pieces). That said, if you want to save a little time (I know I do all of the time), by all means, use the crushed. 


Nanda Garber: When you say juice of one lemon, how much do you mean, approximately?

Julia Turshen: I would say approximately 3 to 4 tablespoons. I just hate measuring lemon juice and love just squeezing it straight from the fruit! 

On Cookbooks

Dara Vandor: Which cookbook is your go-to? If you could have dinner with one chef/baker alive or dead who would it be?

Julia Turshen: The answer for both is one in the same: The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis is my go-to book, and if it were humanly possible, I’d love to have dinner with her. And my late grandfather, who was a bread baker. 


Hayley Evans: What are your top five favorite cookbooks? (Excluding your own, wonderful though they are.)

Julia Turshen: Oh you’re so sweet, thank you. Edna Lewis’s book as I mentioned above, plus Lee Bailey’s Country Weekends, Ina Garten’s Parties!, Dr. Jessica B. Harris’s The WELCOME TABLE, and Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots

Brian Hogan Stewart: How did creating your own cookbook differ from working on others’ cookbooks? What was easier, harder?

It was much quieter! It was different and easier in many ways (less scheduling, less back-and-forth) and also harder (more responsibility and the work of promoting it and not just moving onto the next). I loved creating my own but I also love great collaborations. I’m so happy I get to do both. 


Joan Laws Osborne: I’m enjoying cooking from Small Victories and was wondering if you have plans for another cookbook.

Julia Turshen: Thanks so much! And yes!! Stay tuned…

Have a question for Julia? There’s still time to ask her—join the Cookbook Club today.

Vote for our next cookbooks

Cookbook Club books are chosen by you, the participants. To have your say on what cookbooks we’ll cover in July, August, and September, fill out this Google Form by Monday, May 22.

A Little Spice Goes a Long Way in This Vegan Breakfast Porridge

Last fall, I met a friend in Hudson for brunch at Rivertown Lodge, where I ordered their quinoa and oat porridge, devoured it in record time, and have since spent months dreaming about it. I recently learned that the dish (and Rivertown’s entire menu) was created by Jean Adamson, owner of Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, who kindly shared the recipe with me. It read like many of the recipes in Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune: ingredients listed in bulk quantities (e.g. 2 boxes of almond milk, 10 cardamom pods), and instructions written for a line cook, each component of the dish cooked separately, followed by what to do at “pick up.”

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All these become a very satisfying breakfast.
Photos by Alexandra Stafford

To make Jean’s porridge, the first step is to heat almond milk with cardamom and bay, ideally fresh bay, the flavor of which Jean has “always loved in sweet things like custard and ice cream.” (She makes a chilled muesli in the summer with the same infusion.) The next step is to cook oats and quinoa separately, then unite them with the now-infused almond milk. Just before serving, the porridge receives a showering of garnishes: toasted almonds, flaked coconut, and fresh berries or soaked prunes.

I’ve been making this porridge nearly every morning for breakfast since learning the recipe, and while it’s a bit more work than other cooked-from-scratch hot breakfast cereals, it’s well worth the effort. Also, a little mise en place goes a long way: with cooked quinoa stashed in the fridge and the garnishes prepped ahead, making this porridge amounts to cooking oats and heating some almond milk with a single crushed cardamom pod and half a bay leaf, which impart the porridge with the loveliest spiced and floral notes. Playing restaurant at home has its advantages: an aromatic, light but satisfying, perfectly sweet porridge that comes together in a snap.

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Wake up and smell the coffee (and the bay leaf!)
Photo by Alexandra Stafford

When I spoke with Jean over the phone earlier this week, in addition to sharing her recipe, she passed along some kitchen tips and wisdom:

  • Cook the oats and quinoa separately. The quinoa cooks in about 20 minutes and the rolled oats in 10, so it’s best to keep them separate or neither will be cooked properly. (As noted above, this may seem like too much work for porridge, but if you make a large batch of quinoa—i.e. 1 cup of dried quinoa—ahead of time, you’ll have enough on hand all week to stir into your morning oats (or your evening salads).
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A good thing to do while listening to a podcast.
Photo by Alexandra Stafford

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Save a pot—cook quinoa ahead of time.
Photo by Alexandra Stafford

  • Don’t fear fat. Jean always cooks oats with a little bit of fat. Here, it’s coconut oil—this porridge happens to be vegan (and gluten-free)—but if you’re not keeping vegan, it could certainly be butter.

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Quinoa and Oat Breakfast Porridge

By Alexandra Stafford

  • 2
    cups unsweetened almond milk, divided, see notes above

  • 1
    cardamom pod, crushed with the flat side of a knife

  • 1/2
    a bay leaf, fresh is best

  • 1/2
    cup quinoa, red is nice for color

  • 3/4
    cup rolled oats, extra-thick if you can find them, see notes above

  • 1
    teaspoon coconut oil

  • 2
    tablespoons maple syrup

  • 1/4
    teaspoon kosher salt, plust more to taste

  • toasted coconut, toasted almonds, fresh berries such as strawberries and blueberries, for garnish

View Full Recipe

What’s your favorite restaurant-adapted recipe? Let us know in the comments!

This Company Wants to Hack Your IKEA Kitchen (Affordably)

Last month, two London-based designers, Tim Deacon and Adam Vergette, launched Plykea. It’s a startup committed to making bespoke plywood worktops, drawer fronts, cover panels, spacer panels, and doors that adapt themselves naturally to IKEA’s wildly popular METOD kitchen line.

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Photo by Plykea

Plykea grew out of the men’s mutual realization that there was no centralized node committed to simplifying a process that many homeowners tried to do on their own: to enliven their IKEA kitchens with a wider, more aesthetically-enticing array of materials than the particleboard offered to them. The two often found that re-outfitting IKEA’s METOD line with new, birch plywood fronts was unsettlingly expensive, a byproduct of this decentralization.

So the two teamed up to offer a solution to other homeowners suffering from this same predicament of trying to make their IKEA kitchens feel more personal without totaling their wallets. Both are pretty high-profile designers—Diacon is a co-founder of design agency Normally, while Vergette is an alum of furniture company Vitsoe—and they settled on a simple, obvious name, a portmanteau of plywood and IKEA.

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Photos by Plykea

I’m afraid that Plykea only ships within the United Kingdom for now, but they’re a mere month old. They’re hoping to expand to continental Europe and, eventually, the United States. Bummer! It’s a resource I imagine many people around the world could use. Let’s hope it lasts.

In the meantime, distract yourself with never-ending permutations of the Frakta tote.

Learn more about Plykea here.

Throw a Top-It-Yourself Pie Party, Never Choose Between Apple & Chocolate Again

Pie dough scraps are a beautiful thing. There are so many ways to create warm, golden, flaky bites of goodness out of them, agreed? Now consider the following proposal: Make your favorite pie dough recipe with no intention of baking an actual pie. Instead, roll the entire raw dough into a large flat rectangle, bake it in a rimmed baking sheet, and create a single heroic “scrap” of pie crust!

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A sight to behold!
Photo by James Ransom

This idea was inspired by a recurring dream: A gigantic rectangle of pie crust sits on a cutting board, surrounded by an array of sweet accompaniments (chocolate mousse, fresh berries, toasted nuts, whipped cream, roasted fruit, caramel sauce…). At the end of the night, the guests (we’re at a cocktail party, by the way) suddenly notice the freshly-baked pie crust and collectively lose their minds with delight. They tear pieces of pie crust with their bare hands, customizing each individual handful with a different combination of toppings.

We brought this dream to life, although in a (slightly) less hedonistic way: by topping the slab of pie crust with six distinct combinations of toppings, calmly slicing it into neat little squares, and happily stuffing our faces with tastiness.

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All Buttah Pie Dough

By Erin McDowell

  • 1 1/4
    cups all-purpose flour, sifted

  • Pinch salt

  • 8
    tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

  • 1/4
    cup ice water, or more as needed

View Full Recipe

To make the pie crust, we suggest a double batch of Erin McDowell’s classic All Buttah Pie Dough. Make sure the raw dough has been thoroughly chilled in the fridge before rolling it out. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper, lay the rolled-out dough down across the rimmed baking sheet, and use a fork to dock (make holes in) the dough. For optimal pie crust, place the baking sheet back in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Set your oven to 375° F. When your rolled-out dough is chilled, take it out of the refrigerator and place another silicon mat or piece of parchment paper on top of your dough. Top this with another rimmed baking sheet (this will prevent the dough from puffing up while it bakes). Cook the pie crust for 20-25 minutes. Remove the rimmed baking sheet and parchment paper from the top of the pie crust and bake it exposed for an additional 5-10 minutes at 400°, until the crust looks golden. For a deeper golden color, brush an egg wash over the dough and bake for a final 5 minutes.

Toppings!

We elected to use the following six combinations:

  • Chocolate mousse topped with chocolate syrup and shaved dark chocolate
  • Blueberry compote topped with toasted coconut flakes
  • Roasted apples topped with caramel sauce
  • Vanilla whipped mascarpone topped with caramelized pineapple
  • Macerated strawberries topped with candied ginger and chopped pistachios
  • Raspberry whipped cream topped with fresh berries

Of course, you can use any array of toppings that you want, from more esoteric items like fresh herbs and roasted sweet potato to simple ingredients like peanut butter and sliced bananas. Let your imagination run wild.

After cooking a giant pie crust inside the friendly confines of the Food52 test kitchen, I continue to believe that “family-style pie crust with accompanying buffet of toppings” is a brilliant dessert idea for large groups. And if you forgo the knife and cutting board, opting instead to rip into the warm pie crust with your bare hands, give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back, because that is how this dish was originally intended to be eaten.

If you throw a party and serve this pie crust with an assortment of toppings, please write a comment below to let us know how it went. Was it a success? A messy disaster? Both? We want to hear from you!