Balsamic 101 - A beginner's guide to balsamic vinegar by Anna Russell
Picking out a balsamic vinegar can be confusing. In Modena, it is illegal to indicate the age of a balsamic vinegar on the bottle. Every balsamic vinegar is the product of a different recipe, blends of grape must and vinegar, and are achieved by varying aging conditions. Gold and silver labels, “Product of Modena”, numbers of “leafs” and “years”, are nothing more than marketing tools. They are no indication whatsoever of the quality of the product inside the bottle. Further adding to the confusion, is your intended use of the product. Are you interested in something to use in a recipe or make a vinaigrette with? Do you plan to drizzle it over seasonal vegetables? Is this a product you want to place a few drops of on fresh strawberries or fine cheese? Just like tasting wine, every good balsamic has uniquely complex flavours that may appeal to some and not others. Flavour characteristics can range from bright, sweet, and acidic, to thick and cloying with tones of raisin and oak. There is also a wide distinction between traditional balsamic condiment and balsamic vinegar, with just as wide a price range. The best way to choose a balsamic vinegar is by tasting it! You can also check out our balsamic food pairings.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale D.O.P.
Traditional balsamic is a condiment that has been produced in Italy since the Middle Ages. White grape juice is pressed from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes which is then boiled down reducing its volume and creating a concentrated grape must. The grape must is fermented in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years. During that time, the stoppers on the barrels are removed to allow for natural evaporation, thickening and concentrating the liquid as it ages.
The production of authentic balsamic is strictly regulated by governing consortia in the two Italian regions of Modena and Reggio-Emilia, and is protected under the Italian D.O.P. (Denominazione de origine protetta) and the European Union’s P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin). Each region has a specific bottle, seal, and registration, designating authenticity.
Following a centuries-old method, as the grape must ages, it is transferred to increasingly smaller barrels, often made of varying woods, to develop its rich flavour characteristics, similar to barrel aging wine or fine sherry. As the volume of the smallest barrel decreases, due to evaporation and withdrawal for bottling, it is topped up with grape must from the next larger barrel. This process is repeated with each of the successively larger barrels, until the largest barrel is filled with freshly boiled grape must. A Committee of Certified Tasters samples the grape must throughout the process and may require longer aging to develop a particular flavour profile. As such, authentic balsamic undergoes a continual blending process and the age of the product can only be represented by the minimum number of years it has spent in barrels. For example, a bottle of balsamic condiment can state that has been aged a minimum of 12 years, when in fact, it may have spent up 18 years in barrels. A minimum of 25 years in a series of superior barrels made of different woods is required to be granted the label Extravecchio or extra old.
These precious condiments are served in droplets on top of chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, strawberries, gelato or vanilla ice cream. It can even be offered in a tiny glass as a digestif at the end of a meal.
Reduced grape must is blended with red wine vinegar to make balsamic vinegar. Depending on the age of the grape must used and the ratio to wine vinegar, the final product can range from bright and acidic to sweet and complex. The higher the proportion of grape must and its age, generally the higher the price. A traditionally produced balsamic vinegar should contain only grape must and wine vinegar, nothing else.
More acidic balsamic vinegar is excellent for making vinaigrettes and using in recipes. Sweeter, more concentrated balsamic is great with olive oil as a bread dipper, drizzled over antipasti, grilled meats and vegetables, or on a classic Caprese salad of seasonal tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil.
So called “Balsamic Vinegar”
Other grape producing regions are developing their own versions of vinegar produced in methods similar to the traditional Italian process. These products are often labelled as balsamic vinegar although they may have come from places such as Greece or Napa Valley. They can be very good products made with care and quality ingredients so it’s important to check the label.
These can be used similarly to traditional balsamic vinegar and often more affordable.
Inferior, mass-produced balsamic vinegar is often artificially sweetened and thickened with the addition of caramel colouring, fructose syrup, guar or xanthan gum, etc. In some cases, it doesn’t contain any balsamic grape must at all and is simply sweetened wine vinegar. If a prepared product like balsamic vinaigrette contains “balsamic vinegar” in its ingredients list, the individual components in the balsamic vinegar should be listed separately, as is common with other widely used ingredients such as worcestershire sauce. This can help you determine the quality of the prepared product.
Balsamic glazes and reductions are most commonly artificially sweetened, thickened vinegars. There are some good quality reductions available and you can expect to pay a price similar to an very good balsamic vinegar. Again, a quality product should only list grape must and vinegar as ingredients.
Glazes and reductions are good for garnishing meat dishes, salads, and desserts. They are also excellent for glazing grilled meats, fish, and vegetables as they cook. You can easily create your own balsamic reduction by using an affordable balsamic vinegar and reducing it by ⅓ in a sauce pan over low heat.
White balsamic is sometimes nothing more than sweetened white wine vinegar. Superior white balsamic follows a similar process to traditional balsamic, but is aged and reduced in steel casks to maintain its light colour. It does not have the rich flavour profile that wood-aged vinegar has.
White balsamic can be as an alternative for dishes where you want to avoid the dark red-black colour imparted by traditional balsamic vinegar.
Here are some great recipes using balsamic vinegar and suggestions for pairing different styles of balsamic: