Italians Love Pairing Cheese & Balsamic Vinegar. We Should Follow Suit
Italians Love Pairing Cheese & Balsamic Vinegar. We Should Follow Suit
Balsamic vinegar has been all the rage in the condiment world for the last decade or so. Adding it to salad dressings (or drizzling as is on top of the salads) and sauces, reducing it to glaze for meat and seafood, using it as an ingredient in marinades or straight-up sauteeing vegetables in, it has become a go-to hack for giving the dish a more complex, piquant flavor.
Not to mention mixing it with extra virgin olive oil to dip fresh white bread. I can hardly think of a way to make a foreigner feel like a real Italian rather than dipping their bread in an olive-oil-balsamic vinegar mixture.
But one balsamic vinegar pairing we, non-Italians, tend to overlook is cheese. In the Emilia Romagna region, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar, pairing cheese, particularly Parmigiano Reggiano, is as common as mixing it with olive oil.
Here’s why we should take our cue from them more often!
Why Pair Balsamic Vinegar and Cheese?
The answer is simple: chemistry. No, this is not a pun (I understand if you want to click off the article right now, but please give me a few moments to explain).
It’s all about balancing your acids with your fats. Balsamic vinegar is a highly acidic product, while cheese is high in fat. Both these products, independent of each other, have qualities that stimulate increased saliva production in the mouth, stimulating the desire to continue eating and creating the illusion of continuous hunger.
But together, they’re even more potent, as each possesses the qualities to make the other more palatable and trick people into eating even more. Cheese can seem too heavy, rich, and salty after a few slices. But once paired with balsamic vinegar, the saltiness is balanced out by sweetness. The added acidic effect alleviates the heaviness of the cheese’s high-fat content, tricking the person into consuming even more.
Types of Balsamic Vinegar:
Generally, balsamic vinegar is separated into three grades to indicate its quality rather than types:
- Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
The traditional balsamic vinegar is what we refer to when speaking about a high-grade authentic product. The best balsamic vinegar comes from the city of Modena in Emilia Romagna. Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from a pressed grape reduction and aged between 12 and 25 years in wooden barrels. The result is a thick, rich, and glossy syrup that balances sweet and sour flavors and has a bit of smoky undertone from the barrels.
While the term balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico) isn’t regulated, thus technically, it can be produced anywhere in the world; the EU has granted three varieties either protected designation of origin (PDO) or protected geographical indication (PGI) status, so they can only be manufactured in Emilia Romagna.
These varieties are:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP;
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP;
- Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP.
The oldest balsamic vinegar manufacturer in Italy is Giuseppe Gusti. They’ve been producing traditional Modena balsamic vinegar since 1605. Among the more recent additions, Villa Manodori balsamic vinegar is probably the most noteworthy. It belongs to the famous Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whose Modena-based three Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Franscescana was named the best in the world not once but twice. Now that’s a man we can trust to deliver a high-quality product.
- Condiment-Grade Balsamic Vinegar
A mid-grade balsamic vinegar that’s close to the traditional high-grade product but doesn’t adhere to the stringent rules required to produce it. Though, certain artisanal products that follow the original guidelines close enough but haven’t been made in the designated area can also sometimes be labeled as condiment-grade (Condimento Balsamico or Salsa Balsamica). Usually, condiment-grade balsamic vinegar is aged for less than the required minimum of 12 years. Original Emilia Romagna-produced products can also be labeled as condiment-grade if it’s not been aged for long enough.
- Commercial-Grade Balsamic Vinegar
This type of balsamic vinegar is considered to be the lowest-grade product of the three. It’s sometimes labeled simply as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, but in reality, it has little to do with the original. Commercial-grade balsamic vinegar is sometimes made with as little as just 20% grape must and achieves its texture and flavor due to additives like wine vinegar, coloring, and thickeners. It’s often used for dressings, marinade, and sauces, but lacks the complexity and richness of the original flavor.
What Cheese Goes with Balsamic Vinegar?
Most cheeses go well with balsamic vinegar. Most cheeses, be they hard or soft, will pair well with balsamic vinegar as long as you 1) don’t overdo it and stick to the “less is more” formula; 2) don’t skimp out and get the best balsamic vinegar, i.e., the authentic IGP Modena balsamic vinegar and not commercial-grade or, by gods, condiment-grade balsamic vinegar.
The clear sweetness and mellow tartness of high-grade balsamic vinegar will accentuate most cheese varieties well, as long as you don’t drench the cheese. But different cheese varieties work differently with balsamic vinegar. Some are fine by themselves, with their robust flavors going toe-to-toe with it, some need more care to be accentuated appropriately, and some work best in tandem with other ingredients:
- Grana Cheeses
Grana cheese is a subset of hard Italian cheese with a granular, crumbly texture. They’re mature, with robust and rich flavors that aren’t easy to overwhelm, even with as flavorful a condiment as balsamic vinegar. Parmigiano Reggiano is considered a classic pairing for balsamic vinegar, but other Granas like Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano hold up just as well.
- Blue Cheeses
Blue cheese works well with balsamic vinegar for the same reasons as Grana cheese. Its robust and sharp flavor is hard to overwhelm and creates a very piquant tandem with sweet-and-sour balsamic vinegar. Italian Gorgonzola is, of course, the obvious choice for such pairing, but make no mistake, French Roquefort and Spanish Cabrales are just as good.
- Soft Cheeses
While soft cheeses can easily be overwhelmed, a strategically added slight drizzle of balsamic vinegar can accentuate the flavors if you’re careful. Mozzarella (and burrata), ricotta, Chevre goat cheese, and Robiola all make fine flavor pairings with balsamic vinegar. The key is to add other ingredients to the mixture (like fruits, mushrooms, or cured meats) that will balance out the flavors, not letting balsamic vinegar steal the show.
10 Ideas to Pair Balsamic Vinegar with Cheese
The real challenge of pairing balsamic vinegar with cheese doesn’t lie in choosing the suitable cheese variety. The challenge is deciding what other ingredients to pair the cheese-and-balsamic-vinegar combo with.
Here are the ten ideas we like the best:
Sweet Fruit, Grana Cheese, and Balsamic Vinegar
The most classic set-up, in this case, would be figs and Parmigiano Reggiano, but the truth is most sweet fruits, and Grana cheese varieties will work. Expand your horizons and experiment a little. Pair ripe pears with Pecorino Romano, or juicy apricots with Grana Padano, drizzle with just a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and pop it into your mouth. That’s what we’d call a flavor explosion.
Burrata Salad with Arugula, Cherry Tomatoes, Balsamic Vinegar, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Mellow and creamy burrata is another cheese that pairs very well with balsamic vinegar. The sweetness from balsamic accentuates the creaminess in the cheese (unless you overdo it, and then it’s impossible to taste anything beyond the balsamic vinegar). Classic burrata salad is a simple dish, with only fresh peppery arugula and tangy cherry tomatoes. Drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil for extra flavor, crack black pepper on top and enjoy.
Pro tip: you can swap cherry tomatoes for strawberries for a bit of extra sweetness (strawberries are similarly tangy and acidic, and thus they can be a solid substitute in this salad).
Prosciutto Pizza: Mozzarella and Balsamic Vinegar
Prosciutto, particularly Prosciutto Cotto, is another classic balsamic vinegar pairing. So drizzling a bit over the prosciutto-mozzarella tandem will only elevate the dish. Add a few Parmigiano Reggiano shaves to top it all off, and enjoy the decadent version of the old classic.
By the way, a crostini version of this dish will work just as well, as long as it’s the prosciutto-mozzarella pairing involved.
Pro tip: frankly speaking, most pizza varieties will be elevated if you add a drizzle of balsamic and a few shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. If prosciutto isn’t up your alley, try it with Quattro Formaggi or Margherita pizza.
Strawberry and Ricotta Crostini with Mint and Balsamic Vinegar
A simple snack can be elevated to a whole new degree with a bit of high-grade balsamic vinegar, and this dish is the testament. Grill some baguette slices in olive oil, smear a generous amount of ricotta cheese on top, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar here and there, and top off with fresh strawberries. It’s heavenly with some coffee.
Baked Robiola and Balsamic Vinegar
Robiola is a soft-ripened Italian cheese, somewhat similar to the French brie and camembert. As such, robiola is perfect for baking. It has a rich, buttery, slightly fruity taste, which makes a great pair with sweet and thick balsamic vinegar. You can enjoy it on its own like you would baked brie, but I prefer adding extra flavors as well. My favorite? Thick, spicy, and sweet pepper jam.
Baked Butternut Squash, Grana Padano, and Balsamic Vinegar
Grana Padano is an underrating pairing when it comes to balsamic vinegar, often taking a backseat to Parmigiano Reggiano. And while Parmigiano Reggiano is undoubtedly great, Grana Padano does deserve more love! Grana Padano is rich and nutty, like Parmesan, but it’s also butterier and a bit more delicate. It goes excellently with baked butternut squash’s sweet, caramel-like flavor with strong nuttiness. Add a drizzle of Villa Manodori balsamic vinegar, and you’ve got a kingly snack on your hands.
Risotto with Tons of Grated Grana Cheese and Balsamic Vinegar
While not all risotto recipes will work well with balsamic vinegar, a surprising amount of classic Italian varieties do! Risotto alla Zucca with pumpkin and nutmeg; the rich Risotto alla Milanese with lard and saffron, Risotto ai Frutti di Mare with seafood, and Risotto ai Funghi with mushroom can all benefit from a bit of balsamic vinegar drizzle once plated. But I prefer increasing the amount of cheese in the recipe by at least ½ cup. Any Grana cheese will do, not just Parmigiano Reggiano. My favorite is Risotto ai Funghi with Pecorino Romano, as I feel mushroom flavor (rich, meaty, and earthy) goes well with buttery and earthy sheep milk cheese particularly well.
Classic Caprese Salad with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, Balsamic Vinegar, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Caprese salad is definitely in the running for the easiest traditional Italian dish. All it takes is slicing up some fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. Then just season it with sweet basil, salt, and pepper, topping everything with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Balsamic vinegar isn’t a traditional ingredient in the salad, and many would consider adding it blasphemy - but all the ingredients are known to pair very well with it, so adding a tiny drizzle only elevates the dish. Go ahead; we won’t tell anyone.
Fig and Cream Cheese Crostini with Balsamic Vinegar
We’re veering away from Italian cheese varieties a bit here, but if all you’ve got in your fridge is standard cream cheese and you don’t want to wait before giving the cheese-and-balsamic-vinegar combo a taste, we can make it work! Regular cream cheese, with its mellow sweetness and noticeable tanginess, can work very well with balsamic vinegar, especially when there’s a sweet fruit thrown into the mix. Figs work best if you ask me, but apricots, strawberries, peaches, and plums are all worthy substitutes. Grill the bread in olive oil for extra crunch, and add some mint or basil for a bit of herby flavor.