When chef Sarah Grueneberg was opening Monteverde earlier this year and knew she wanted to feature a soda on the menu, she quickly dismissed cola and sugarcane for another soft drink base: saba, otherwise known as “mosto cotto” or cooked grape juice. “It’s not fermented, so it’s like a grape soda that’s cooked down with wine grapes,” she says. “It has a little bit of acidity to it because of the wine grapes themselves, and there’s no added sugar — it’s all from the fruit.”
For Grueneberg, it was important to show off the ingredient, which she first encountered during a harvest in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. “I don’t think saba is as well respected as balsamic, even though it’s the first step of the balsamic process,” she says. During her time there, she learned about the history of the overlooked by-product, which was made as a sweetener when harvest yielded extra grapes. “Cooking out the water was a way to preserve the grapes without them all spoiling,” she says. To make vinegar, the grape syrup is fermented to produce young balsamic, which is then aged for varying amounts of time, from 12 to 100 years (Monteverde is aging balsamic from Acetaia San Giacomo thanks to an in-house batteria). It’s for this reason that prices of balsamic vinegars can be so high, whereas saba prices are, in general, much more approachable and consistent.
“It’s a complex sweetener with a rounder and gentler flavor profile.”
“Some consider it to be the poor man’s balsamic,” says Soho House Chicago sous chef Gerad Gobel. “If it’s made correctly, though, it can be just as interesting and complex as really expensive balsamic vinegar.” And Gobel should know. He was working at San Francisco’s Delfina 10 years ago when he first sampled the saba that chef Craig Stoll had brought back from Italy. “I had never heard of it before, and it blew my mind,” he says. “I wanted to know more about it.”
After digging around on some Italian websites, he decided to give it a shot one day. “I had helped a friend in Sonoma with some farm work, and in exchange I brought about 30 pounds of cabernet grapes back to Oakland with me,” he recalls. “It’s surprisingly easy to make if you have access to the right materials.” That access has been challenged a bit with his move to Chicago, but he’s still hopeful for what fruit the Midwest can bear. In the meantime, though, he’s been calling upon the San Giacomo saba for two dishes on his menu: Brussels sprouts with guanciale, ginger and Calabrian chili, and lamb ribs with muscat grapes, yogurt and pistachios. For Gobel, it’s savory dishes like this, along with gamey ones, that make for a perfect saba match. “We were running a duck liver mousse with capers and shallots, which made it super-savory,” he says. “Without the saba it could be a little strong — it needed to be cut with something.”
He defends the ingredient’s potential to power up sweet dishes, too. “It’s great on ice cream — better than balsamic because saba doesn’t have as much acidity,” he says. “It’s a complex sweetener with a rounder and gentler flavor profile.”
That application takes shape at Catania in La Jolla, California, where chef Dustin Karagheusian adds it to a semifreddo made of Nutella, hazelnuts, olive oil and sea salt. “It has the potential to be a chef’s favorite garnish because it’s on the sweeter side, but it does have that mild bitterness,” he says.
Cheese is a favorite pairing among chefs, too — Grueneberg reaches for robiolo, whereas Gobel opts for pecorino. Over in Seattle, it was burrata that sealed the deal for chef Walter Pisano of Tulio. “I do a number of different burrata dishes, but I think it was this one that took to the saba particularly well,” he says of the menu’s antipasti of Brussels sprouts, saba and caramelized figs. No matter what you’re dressing in saba, Pisano suggests getting an eyedropper to do it. “All you need is a few drops,” he says. “A little bit goes a long way.”
That’s good news for those strapped on condiment cash and who need a bottle to last a while. And though reasonable prices are a big reason for saba’s recent rise in popularity, chances are its success goes beyond just the dollar signs.
“Saba is different and hasn’t really been heard of by the general public,” says Karagheusian. “It’s cool for us chefs to grab something fairly unknown, but something that isn’t so far outside the realm of people’s comfort zones.”
Pisano agrees. “I think chefs are realizing that balsamic has its place, and it’s great, but it’s time to look at a different flavor profile — and I think saba has that,” he says. “It’s kind of like drinking a wine — you’re looking for that balance, and saba can bring that to the table.”