Up until relatively recently, balsamic vinegar was one of the best kept secrets in the kitchen and seemed to be mainly the preserve of chefs. Fast forward to today and suddenly the world and its mother knows that balsamic vinegar can add splendid flavor to a variety of dishes. If you’re still in the dark or wish to know more about this marvelous substance, keep reading as we provide you with a comprehensive guide.
What Is Balsamic Vinegar?
In simple terms it is a reduction made from grapes but since the grape juice is unfermented, it is not deemed to be wine vinegar. Instead, the unfermented juice, also called ‘must’, is used and it comes from Trebbiano grapes.
Although the process may be considered ‘old-fashioned’, the end result is very expensive vinegar. The reason for the cost is due to the painstaking process of aging the product for a number of years where it reduces and thickens.
As the aging process continues, the vinegar gets moved in smaller and smaller casks until the right consistency, acidity and taste have been reached. This process can take anywhere from 12-25 years!
Types of Balsamic Vinegar
You may have noticed a huge disparity in the price of balsamic vinegar; that’s because there are three distinct types:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale: It is quite simply the best of the best and no other balsamic vinegar is permitted to have the name. 12 year old vinegar of this nature may cost you up to $1,000 per liter while the 25 year old version could cost a whopping $4,000 a liter!
- Commercial Grade: This is an eminently more affordable option and is the kind you’ll find in your local supermarket. Unlike the pure Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale however, it is normally a combo of wine vinegar and additives which are designed to help recreate the taste of the original product. Caramel, coloring and thickeners may also be added and there is no aging for this product.
- Condimento Grade: This is typically a combo of the mass produced and traditionally made products. It can be made in the original way but aged for far less time or else it can follow the traditional method to a ‘T’ but be made outside of Reggio Emilia or Modena which means it cannot hold the Aceto label.
How The Good Stuff Gets Made
For aficionados, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is a delicacy on a par with fresh truffles! The method of making this amazing product was invented in the early 19th century and even today it is only made in and around two small neighboring towns in the north of Italy called Modena or Reggio Emilia.
There is actually a trio of producers who compete against one another and while each of them has their own specific methods, the overall approach is almost identical. Locally grown grapes get harvested (mainly the Trebbiano variety); then they are crushed before the mash (called ‘mosto’) gets filtered and then cooked in an open vat at a temperature of between 175 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 days. At this point, the product has halved in volume.
The concentrated mosto has a batch of vinegar laden with aceto-bacteria added and it is converted to acetic acid which you may also know as wine vinegar. The substance is then aged in wooden casks stored in an attic. It gets exposed to extremes of temperature over time and as it ages it further reduces in volume.
It then gets moved from cask to cask; for example, a batch may be initially stored in 100 gallon casks but eventually it ends up in 10 gallon barrels. Every winter, about ¼ of the vinegar in the smallest cask gets removed and bottled and is replaced by vinegar from the next smallest cask. As the casks are not plugged with stoppers, around 10% of the product evaporates each year; far from being a waste, this process actually intensifies the flavor.
What Should I Use Balsamic Vinegar For?
It is a very popular choice for a salad dressing; in this case, high end commercial grade vinegar might be your best option. Condimento grade is an excellent option for gourmands looking to add a touch of flavor to their dishes; again, this type is great as a salad dressing but can also work well in other dishes.
If your goal is to impress, then splash out on the Aceto! Obviously, you want to use it very sparingly! It makes a fabulous addition to artisan ice cream or, if you’re feeling really decadent, purchase some Parmesan Reggiano and top it with tiny amounts of Aceto; your taste buds will go wild!
How Do I Know I’m Getting The Real Thing?
If you’re looking to spend hundreds of dollars on Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, you better know what to look for in order to prevent a big mistake:
Color, Flavor & Texture
Premium grade balsamic is dark brown, viscous and glossy. It seems to move like syrup and provides a delightful velvety texture when placed on your tongue. You should be able to taste notes of molasses, fig, chocolate, prune or cherry in a flavor that practically explodes in your mouth. You may also be able to pick up a slight smokiness and the flavors of the wood it was stored in.
When checking the bottle, here’s what you should find:
- The front label should say ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena’ and also have the crucial initials D.O.P which stand for a protected area of origin. These initials are kind of like a gold standard and guarantee that the vinegar has been certified by the local Consorzio.
- On the back label look at the ingredients. There should be nothing other than ‘mosto d’uva cotto’ which is cooked grape must. The label should also say ‘produced and bottled by’ as this shows the producer grew the grapes himself.
- There should also be a seal on top of the bottle which has a number and hologram as another sign of certification by the Consorzio.
The Vinegar Institute also has some helpful hints:
- For traditional balsamic from Modena, please note that it is only found in a very distinctive bulb-shaped 100ml bottle in most cases.
- The red label on Modena vinegar indicates a 12 year aging process, a silver label means an 18 year aging process and a gold cap means a minimum of 20 years of aging.
- Fine gourmet shops and specialist online stores are your best places to make a purchase.
- Since you are spending a fair amount on this delicacy, always look for a bottle that is contained in a box with a book of recipes along with a description of the manufacturing process.
While traditional balsamic vinegar may seem like an expensive investment, the flavors it can provide are out of this world and can open a whole new batch of recipes. Once you locate the best Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, you will view it as money well spent!