Oh how I do love me some balsamic vinegar. It isn’t good everywhere, balsamic has a very specific flavor that I don’t think I have ever heard described as neutral, but that sweet, tart, musty grape liquid, when used smartly, can add a richness that you won’t get with other vinegars. Balsamic doesn’t add just tartness, but also flavor.
Balsamic vinegar is a heck of a lot more complicated than it appears. Traditional balsamic follows similar rules to that of the Champagne region of France – in order to be labeled an aceto balsamico the vinegar must be produced from a reduced blend of juices squeezed from 2 different grapes from Reggio Emilia or neighboring Modena in Italy that is progressively aged in a variety of different wooden casks for at least 12 years before bottling and use. Traditional, authentic balsamic is thick & syrupy with a wild, near perfect balance of tart and sweet from the reduced grape juice and the types of woods it was aged in. This is NOT the kind you would use in an everyday marinade. professionally I’ve used it countless times in sauces and to finish dishes. It is quite expensive and, like a truffle, is worth every damn penny…in the right application. Similar to how it would be a total waste to shave a truffle over a turkey sandwich it would also be a waste to use this kind of balsamic in a dressing or marinade.
The kinds that we see the most of are Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Condimento Grade. The balsamic of modena is the truly cheap stuff; it is made by fortifying wine vinegar with caramel color, sweeteners and natural thickeners to mimic the condimento grade balsamic, it is produced thousands of gallons at a time daily. Flavor wise it is a bit thin, I really don’t think it adds much more umph than a good red wine vinegar & some honey would, but it does add the color. The condimento grade is kind of a free for all in that it is unregulated. Condimento producers can range from producers that follow the exact same process as aceto balsamico, they are just out of the region for the official title but still make unreal good balsamic to producers that blend the BoM with reduced grape juice to make a better quality fake that is still, at its core, fake. I usually buy the condimento grade and I choose based up the upper end of middle. Go stand in front of the balsamic vinegar shelf at Penn Mac. If the cheapest of the non-aceto balsamico is $4 for a 16oz bottle and the most expensive is $40 for the same size I find one in the $20ish range. Scientific, huh? Works though, I haven’t brought home one I have been disappointed in yet and quite a few that I kicked myself for not remembering the name OR saving the bottle.
Balsamic vinegar is sweet, for this reason I love it for grilling. It caramelizes up beautifully on the grill, adds a sweetness to a marinade so there is no need for any additional sugar and it is strong so it works well for quickies. On the down side it is also a dominate flavor that doesn’t play well with everything and in most cases plays best with fewer playmates. Neutral acids – like lemon, red wine vinegar, cider vinegar – all add acidity and their flavor can be played down and/or accented, but for the most part they are going to mesh with whatever you are mixing them with; balsamic is not quite as complacent, making its presence known regardless of how you feel about it, so its use must be more deliberate.
This marinade is one I usually use on pork or dark meat chicken. I have tried it on white meat chicken and it is good, I just don’t think the meat has the richness needed to pull off this marinade as well as the dark meat or pork. The pork tenderloin was perfect, the cook time was enough to get a really nice crispy outside and a perfect medium inside.
The herbs I used were fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley – those are 3 of my favorites so I use them often. Outside of cilantro & lavender, they don’t mix well, mix up whatever you have or like. Chives are excellent, basil, oregano, sage…whatever you have. I don’t recommend subbing out dry unless you have no choice – part of the awesome is the brightness from the herbs that isn’t really possible to mimic with dried. If you need to substitute part or all use half as much as the fresh that the recipe calls for and make the marinade up a day ahead of time, if you can, to give the herbs time to release some flavor. Also I would make sure to have some parsley in your herb mix, just my two cents :)
I borrow my meat marinating method from Alton Brown because it is brilliant – I put everything in a big baggie & squish it all around, add the item(s) to me marinated, squeeze out all the air & moosh around until everything is soaking. It doesn’t make a mess, goes right into the garbage and not flipping and turning to make sure its evenly marinated is a total win.
Grilled Herb Balsamic Pork Tenderloin makes about 1.5 cups marinade
- 2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
- 2 cloves Garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup Minced Fresh Herbs – your choice
- 2 tsp Salt
- healthy amount Fresh Ground Black Pepper
- 1/2 cup Balsamic Vinegar
- 1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Put all the ingredients in a big baggie and mix together. Clean and trim 2 pork tenderloins, add to the marinade and moosh around to get completely covered. Squeeze all air out of the bag and seal, mix around to make sure everything is even. Let marinade for at least an hour, preferably 3-4.
When you are ready to cook heat the grill up medium high. Remove the pork from the marinade and start to sear – 4 minutes per side – to an internal temperature of around 140. Remove from grill and let rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing.
I served sliced with a broccoli cabbage slaw (recipe coming for that later this week) and mashed red potatoes. The balsamic marinade caramelizes on the outside for an almost bbq-esque crust that I loved. I was hoping for leftovers to make sandwiches, but we had some friends over for dinner so we ate it all. Good excuse to make this one again!