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Who Needs Balsamic? A Plea for Tarragon


Once upon a time, vinegar mostly came in two types, cider and distilled. If you looked around, you might find red wine vinegar, maybe even white wine or rice wine vinegar.

Then the foodie explosion of the '70s led to all sorts of doctored vinegars. Vinegar appeals to the kitchen tinkerer because it can't spoil, so you can add flavorings to it without risk. Why not throw in mint or basil or sage? Garlic, hot chiles, tangerine peel?

Great fun. And then came the fruit vinegars. A couple of years back, the words "raspberry vinegar" were splattered all over every self-respecting restaurant menu.

Finally we got to the hard stuff, balsamic vinegar, and it's been a balsamic world ever since. In a neighborhood supermarket, I recently counted 10 brands of imported balsamic vinegar and two domestic brands, to say nothing of a "white balsamic" and three fruit-flavored balsamics: peach, strawberry and raspberry.

Balsamic vinegar is made from concentrated grape juice, and behind its sharpness there's a gentle sweetness. Clearly it has what a lot of people were really looking for in a vinegar--rich flavor combined with an acidity level that doesn't punish the mouth.

But we already had a vinegar of that description decades earlier: tarragon vinegar, a staple in gourmet pantries of the 1940s and '50s. The sweet, licorice-like flavor of tarragon neatly tames the power of acetic acid while adding a perfume of its own.

How it reduces the sharp impression of acetic acid is kind of a mystery. Food science writer Harold McGee points out that tarragon does contain some sugar, about 4% by weight, but this doesn't explain the tarragon effect by itself. "In a 750-ml bottle of vinegar," he points out, "to reach the minimum detectable level of sweetness, you'd have to add 75 grams of tarragon, or about three ounces, which is kind of a lot of tarragon.

"But there may be an element of 'olfactory hallucination' involved," McGee continues. "Tarragon contains an aromatic compound called allyl anisole, which has an anise-like scent. It's also described as a sweet scent. I've always had a little problem with that--how can something smell sweet when sweetness is detected on the tongue?--but there may be some psychological interaction between the small amount of sugar in the tarragon and the 'sweet' aroma that takes the edge off vinegar."

However tarragon works its magic, the resulting vinegar is more versatile than balsamic. One day I had two slices of country ham, so I decided to make a sort of shepherd's pie; or, rather, swineherd's pie, I suppose. I fried up a bunch of onions with the ham, put the mixture in a pan and covered it with mashed potatoes. It was good ... it was perfectly fine. But a few drops of tarragon vinegar put it over the top.

Balsamic vinegar, on the other hand, would have ruined it. Like a powerful red wine, balsamic vinegar can easily overwhelm a dish. Tarragon vinegar has better manners.

And boy, it's easy to make these days, now that fresh tarragon is readily available in supermarkets. Why aren't people taking those leftover sprigs of tarragon they don't know what to do with and sticking them in a bottle of plain, non-balsamic vinegar? That wouldn't be tinkering. That would be a grand old tradition.

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