Saturate the season's best strawberries with black pepper, sugar and balsamic

This elegant 4-ingredient dessert is perfect for hot summer nights when you can't be bothered to turn on the oven

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 4, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)

Balsamic Pepper Strawberries (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Balsamic Pepper Strawberries (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

For about three quarters of the year, I make do with merely passably flavorful frozen berries that I deploy to chuck into smoothies and brighten up my oatmeal. Then June rolls around, and those first beautiful, dark fresh strawberries hit the farmer's market, and I remember how strawberries are actually supposed to taste. It's a heady time in my home, one marked by the constant presence of teal containers brimming with bright red fruit.

Typically, I'd be thinking a lot right now about pies and crumbles and shortcakes. But my older daughter was recently diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, so I'm trying to be supportive in any non-cake and crust ways I can. And when a warm wave of recent days made it all the easier to resist baking, I found myself looking at the strawberries on the kitchen counter and thinking of a classic that grabbed me from the first time I read Nigella Lawson's "How to Eat."

The pairing of strawberries and balsamic vinegar — as zingy partners for each other either in a crisp salad or sophisticated dessert — isn't new. But the way Nigella wrote about it, noting that "The balsamic vinegar seems to make the red of the strawberries against it shine with the clarity of stained-glass windows," made a simple formula seem like a downright spiritual experience. She was, as usual, correct.

For years, I've unquestioningly leaned on "How to Eat's" easy formula of steeping sliced berries in vinegar and sugar, and then adding a warming flourish of cracked black pepper that I picked up from a clever dinner party host years ago. 

But revisiting Lawson's words this week, I was struck by her note on the vinegar — urging the reader to use "the best you can afford." Frankly, "the best I can afford" lately, especially after plunking down a queen's ransom for in season strawberries, is not very much at all. And while I know that what passes for balsamic vinegar in most supermarket aisles is not real, aged Italian vinegar but a cheap facsimile, I'm not in a place in my life where I can splurge a hundred or so dollars on the good stuff from Modena.

Hungry for more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.

Instead, however, I can take a few minutes to make a slick, syrupy cheat's vinegar that takes my strawberries, and everything else, to the next level. America's Test Kitchen has a brilliant recipe for "instant aged balsamic vinegar" that involves simmering the vinegar with sugar and port until it resembles something you'd see dribbled on your cheese course at a very expensive restaurant. I don't keep port on hand, so I skipped it altogether here and the results were still strikingly, palate deceivingly good. I also scaled far back on the sugar for the macerated berries, letting the vinegar play a more starring role.

What I wound up with was a beautifully complex dessert that was at once sweet and tart and spicy. It also happened to be gluten-free and vegan. Best of all, though, it made me feel that for the rest of this fleeting, magical strawberry season, the best I can afford is the best, period.

* * *

Inspired by America's Test Kitchen and "How to Eat" by Nigella Lawson

Balsamic syrup and black pepper strawberries
 2-4 servings
Prep Time
 5 minutes 
Cook Time
 10 minutes


  • 2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • Optional: 2 tablespoons of port or red wine
  • 1 pint of large, washed strawberries 
  • Fresh black pepper


  1. Combine the balsamic vinegar and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the port or red wine if using. Simmer until it's thickened and reduced by half. It will take just a few minutes, so keep an eye on it. Remove from heat and let cool.

  2. Remove the tops of the strawberries and slice them in half. If you're feeling ambitious you can hull them. Put them in a nonreactive dish or bowl.

  3. When the vinegar has cooled, pour it over the strawberries. Sprinkle the remaining two tablespoons of sugar over them. Stir gently to coat the berries.

  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 3 or more hours.

  5. To serve, portion out the strawberries and top with a generous grind of fresh black pepper. If you want to round out the experience, you could accompany your strawberries with some whipped ricotta or vanilla ice cream.

Cook's Notes

This recipe makes a very tart marinade for the strawberries. If you'd like a sweeter ride, add another tablespoon of sugar.

Salon Food writes about stuff we think you'll like. While our editorial team independently selected these products, Salon has affiliate partnerships, so making a purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Balsamic Vinegar Quick & Dirty Recipe Strawberries