Strawberries have been, and likely always will be, my favorite fruit. I'm all too content with the constant supply of inexpensive, ripe, and deliciously sweet strawberries that early summer season brings with it. I can feel the tides turning, though—as my wife brings home each new package, I find myself sitting and picking through the lot to find the extra plump and juicy fruit, leaving the comparatively flavorless specimens for someone with less forethought.* With those less-than-stellar berries becoming more and more numerous, I wanted to find a way to preserve the best of the best in a sauce that will keep me enjoying the harvest in an array of different dishes.
*This is quite the confrontational practice when taking the cream of the crop from the person actually buying the strawberries, and even worse when that person is your significant other.
My first (and best) thought was a strawberry balsamic sauce. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar over a pile of sliced fresh strawberries is a fantastic summertime treat. The rich vinegar adds a contrasting tartness that only seems to draw out the sweet flavor of the berries even more. It turned out, though, that when trying to wed the two in a more formal sauce, the right balance between sweet and tart was trickier than expected.
I started off with what I assumed would be a no-brainer—balsamic, hulled and diced strawberries, and little sugar, simmered together until thick and syrupy. In theory, this worked, but the tartness of the vinegar overwhelmed the strawberries, and while adding more sugar fixed the problem, it also took away from the natural fruity sweetness I was after.
So I went back and tried again, this time using less vinegar and swapping out the white sugar for dark brown sugar, whose deeper sweet molasses flavor I thought would add more body while requiring less actual sugar. I was right with the brown sugar—this was an improvement over the first batch—but even in small amounts, the balsamic was still diminishing the fresh strawberry flavor.
Then I had an idea. What about reducing the balsamic before adding it into the mix? A balsamic reduction—made by simply simmering balsamic vinegar until thick and syrupy—both intensifies the sharp flavor of the vinegar, while sweetening it up a bit as well. This worked like magic; this next iteration of the sauce had the exact balance of sweet, tart, and fruity I was after. But I still felt like it was missing a brightness that would really round it out.
Lemon juice seemed to fit the bill, but that just threw off the acidity once again. So to get that bright flavor without the excessive tartness, I added a pinch of lemon zest to my last batch of the sauce and was finally able to declare it pretty damn near perfect.
Bright, fruity, with a mellow tartness and sweetness, this strawberry balsamic sauce is ready for a multitude of uses. Desserts are the most obvious—it makes an excellent topping for vanilla ice cream or spread on warmed pound cake. It can have more savory uses too, though, like mixed into yogurt or whisked with olive oil to make a tasty vinaigrette. No matter what the use, I can take comfort in the fact I have a batch sitting in the fridge, which will extend the joy of prime summer strawberry season for me for at least another week or two.