What makes Thai tomato salad even better? A thick, sweet balsamic vinegar reduction. Learn the why’s and how’s of balsamic vinegar reduction and put it to good use with a lovely, fresh salad that will make you forget about adding oil for good.
There are four good reasons to set aside 20 minutes or so to make a balsamic reduction – intensify the flavor, thicken the consistency, purity of ingredients and economics. Let’s talk.
Whether we realize it or not, we use reduction every time we simmer sauces or make gravies. For example, when you make tomato chutney, you put all those ingredients in the pan and allow it to slowly simmer for about 45 minutes. Why? Not just to reduce the ‘liquid’ but because as the liquid reduces, the flavor will intensive. This is the exact same principle when we slowly roast vegetables be it in a casserole, like vegetable Briam or oven-dried tomatoes. In the first few cases, you are reducing added liquid and, in the latter, the liquid in the tomato themselves.
Thicken and leave the oil behind
Besides intensifying the flavor, my main motivation for reducing balsamic and other vinegars is to create a naturally thicker consistency. One of the hardest parts about eliminating added oil is figuring out a way to thicken up salad dressings. A simply balsamic reduction will give you a quick thickening solution that can serve as a quick salad dressing or dipping sauce all on its own.
The purity test
I don’t run across it often where I live, but when I was in France, I discovered reduced balsamic right there on the shelf. Just like with any bottled ingredient, there was a big difference between the price, quality and those extra added ingredients that thickened up the ‘reduced balsamic’. Absolutely, if you can find balsamic reduced at all, you can find a really good one, but that leads me to my final point, cost as a role to play.
Balsamic vinegar is a bit like buying wine. Finer is more expensive, but sometimes cheaper is just fine. It all depends on what you’re using it for and your tolerance level for additives – your personal purity test if you will. That’s probably why there’s something we call ‘cooking sherry’ and something my mom using to call ‘sipping sherry’. Maybe, in a pinch, and I’m not suggesting anything here, the two bottles would cross purpose, but let’s just leave it at agreeing that there are times when you don’t need to spend a fortune on a great balsamic.
The quality of balsamic vinegar is determined by a number of factors including origin, quality of grapes, and for how long and the process used to age it. The first quality indicator to look for comes from the front label. Modena or Emilian-Romagna, the region where balsamic grapes, white Trebbiano, are grown, is your first clue as to the quality of what’s inside the bottle.
If you see this word on the bottle, it means that your vinegar was produced using a traditional method which essentially means that it’s been stored in progressively smaller wooden barrels. Cheaper balsamic is made in stainless-steel vats. Be aware though, that some high-quality balsamic vinegars may not actually have that tradizionale label.
Read the label. It never changes does it? The best way to determine the quality of an ingredient is to read that darned label. It might sound obvious, but you want to look at the first item on the list of ingredients, because that’s what the bottle contains most of and in this case, it needs to be clear – grapes.
If you check out the labels of various brands of balsamic starting by the bottle so expensive you won’t be getting it to the very cheapest you’ll understand what I mean:
- Grapes + tradizionale – this is your premium, ‘money burning a hole in my pocket’ kind of balsamic. It’s naturally thicker with very complex and sweet flavors. If you spring for a bottle of this, don’t use it for a reduction. Save it for your finest dressings and special recipes.
- Grapes + vinegar – You second choice will be the use of balsamic grapes along with a wine vinegar. The percentage of one to the other is entirely dependent on the brand. Obviously, the closer you are to Trebbiano grapes, the higher the quality. This is a great category as a finishing condiment because you get a very complex flavor that has a medium-sweet flavor.
- Grape + vinegar + caramel – Here’s your all purpose balsamic. It’s likely the one you buy for dressings because it isn’t the absolute cheapest and it still tastes nice. This is a great reduction candidate, because you will thicken it up and intensify the sweetness. Caramel has been added at this level of balsamic because the production process is quick and that’s what gives you the color you expect from balsamic.
- Vinegar + caramel + artificial flavors – I’m not going to entirely slag off the cheapest balsamic. There are good reasons for having a bottle of hanging around. Sure, it has not been aged a bit, it’s on the sour and thin side, but you can use this for deglazing and you can reduce this one too. My only caution with this entirely depends on exactly what’s in the bottle.
I’ve reduced a few different brands of balsamic in this category and had varied results. One reduced beautifully, although I ended up with about a quarter of the amount I started with. The other, which had what I can only imagine was a significant amount of added sugar, ended up tasting like a piece of burned, hard candy.
When I buy balsamic to reduce, I stick within the latter two ranges, but in general, my advice it to avoid anything that doesn’t have vinegar listed as the first ingredient. I then check out the rest of the label and if the list is super-long or has stuff that I can’t pronounce, I take a pass.
How to reduce balsamic vinegar
Once you have your bottle of balsamic in hand, the process is super simple and the key is keeping it at a low, rolling simmer. You save no time and you will end up with a mass that just sticks to the bottom of the pan if you boil it. Don’t do it.
Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate
When you reduce balsamic, you are going to smell it and I mean, you will be seriously creating fumes. Be sure before you turn on the heat, that you open a window and get the fan going. It’s counter-productive to cover the pot because you want the liquid to evaporate, so you need to do whatever you can to mitigate the strong smells that will be condensing throughout the house.
The ‘stick test’
Ideally, you want to reduce the balsamic by about half. The final thickness is a matter of preference, but if you go less than ¼ of the amount you started with, chances are you will scorch it. One trick to use is the stick test. Dip a wooden popsicle or skewer stick into the pan before you start the reduction and then measure it as the process progresses. This is a handy gage.
You want to stir the vinegar from time to time to see how it’s thickening up and to be sure that it’s heating consistently. When it starts to cling to the spoon and slowly drips, rather than runs off the spoon, you are getting close. The balsamic will continue to thicken a bit as it cools as well.
Thai tomato salad
Reduced balsamic will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for at least 3 months, but after all that, let’s do something with it. I see an easy Thai tomato salad coming right up.
This is a really fun change from some of the other side salads because it’s just tomatoes accentuated with mint, basil and a bit of fresh red chili (that’s the Thai part 1). We’ll make a super-quick dressing with our thick, reduced balsamic, rice vinegar, with an easy and now, much thicker dressing with our reduced balsamic, rice vinegar, fresh garlic and date paste or whatever liquid sweetener you prefer (that’s the Thai, part 2). I realize that most of this post was all about learning to reduce balsamic, but to be fair, I couldn’t just leave you without something new to try with it.
Making a balsamic, as easy as it is, gives me a touch of the gourmet. It makes me feel a bit less ‘cook’ and more ‘chef’. I probably fall somewhere in between, but in the end, the hat is the same – learning new cooking methods and making great-tasting plant-based food. The more I explore food and discover new ways to prepare things I already love or stretch myself toward what I’ve never tried before or that I initially decided I didn’t like, the more I realize that there’s always another great bite to look forward to. PeacePrint
Learn how to make a thick, delicious, flavor intense balsamic vinegar reduction, take a bite of Thai tomato salad and ditch added oil habit for good.
- 2 cups of balsamic vinegar (this depends entirely on the amount you want to end up with)
Thai tomato salad
- 3 cups of cherry tomatoes, cut in half (you can also dice larger tomatoes)
- 6–8 fresh mint leaves, shredded (about 2 Tbsp.)
- 4–5 fresh basil leaves, shredded (1 Tbsp.)
- 1 small red chili, finely sliced with the seeds removed
- 2 Tbsp. reduced balsamic vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
- 2 tsp. date paste, agave syrup or another liquid sweetener
- 1 small garlic clove, pressed or crushed
- Be sure to open a window and turn on your fan before you begin the reduction.
- Add 2 cups of balsamic vinegar to a saucepan and heat it to a slow, bubbling simmer over medium heat. Simmer the vinegar until it is reduced by half or it has reached the desired thickness. Stir it occasionally and test it with a spoon to monitor the thickness.
- Remove the vinegar from the stove and transfer it to an airtight container. It will keep in the fridge for 3 months.
Thai tomato salad
- In a smaller salad bowl, combine the tomatoes, mint, basil and red chili.
- In a small bowl, combine the balsamic, rice vinegar, date paste and crushed garlic. Add this to the salad bowl and combine everything.
- Use more or less than 2 cups of balsamic. It will reduce by approximately half from the original amount.
- If the reduced balsamic thickens too much after being stored in the fridge, place the container in a bowl with warm water to heat it up.
- Thai tomato salad is a great make-ahead salad as it will marinate the longer it sits which really brings out the flavor.
- The cook time is eliminated if you already have reduced balsamic on hand or you use a regular balsamic vinegar.
- Category: Tips & Techniques
- Cuisine: Thai
Keywords: Thai tomato salad with balsamic vinegar reduction