Balsamic vinegar could be described as the champagne of vinegars. It has a richness that is sweet at the same time it is pungent. Its addition to any dish adds an earthiness that will enhance the fullness of the dishes flavor. True balsamic vinegar is made primarily in the region of Emilia-Reggiano in Italy, specifically in Modena and Reggio Emilia. It is produced in the same manner that wine is. Specific grapes are chosen, traditionally the white Trebbiano, which are crushed and pressed. This juice called mosto is then cooked down for a full day until it has concentrated and reduced in volume. It is then poured into wooden barrels, often oak or cherry, where it is aged for a minimum of 12 years. Throughout these years careful attention is taken to maintain the necessary conditions to produce the best product possible.
When it has finished aging, balsamico as it is called in Italy, should be thick, and syrupy in consistency, and have a complex, intense taste. Although the minimum length of time the vinegar is left to ferment is 12 years, many producers who follow the traditional methods age some vinegars for many decades. Of course as you would imagine, the older the balsamico, the more intense the flavor, and the higher the price. I myself have two bottles of the artisan-style balsalmico, one 25, and one 40 years old, which of course I use in moderation, just a few drops at a time.
Balsamic vinegar has a long history in Italy, with the first written documentation referring to balsamic vinegar dating back to the 11th century. At that time, a reference was made to balsamic vinegar having been given as a present to the King of Franconia. At that time, it is interesting to note, that not only was it used in cooking but balsamoico was also taken as a tonic and in medicinal concoctions.
When buying balsamic vinegar, look for Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Reggio. This would be the true artisan-style vinegar, the best you can buy. The other type, Aceto Balsamico di Modena is generally an industrially made product, and its quality may vary. If the label states it was indeed made in Modena however, it may be worth trying. In the States, the best source for artisan-style balsalmico would be a good Italian specialty store. This delicious imported Italian condiment can be found these days in almost any quality grocery store.
Balsamic vinegar is best stored in a cool, dark place, although it is fairly stable, and once bottled will retain it’s flavor well. When used in recipes, the traditional aged type is used sparingly, never actually cooked, but added just before serving to give a burst of flavor. I often add a few drops of balsamico to sauteed mushrooms, or veal and beef dishes just before serving which adds a delicious earthy richness. Another great use for aged balsamic is to drizzle it on fruit, or on wedges of parmesan cheese. Also, a neat trick I learned many years ago helps to improve the flavor of strawberries. If the strawberries you buy are slightly unde-ripe, after you clean them, toss them with a half a teaspoon to a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of sugar. You will be amazed at the change in flavor! Delicious!
In general for use in salads, cooking, pasta, or drizzled over meats before grilling, use the Aceto Balsamico di Modena. I would save the traditional, aged balsamic to be used as a condiment, a drop at a time just before serving. Remember though, when using balsamic vinegar in your recipes, use just enough to enhance, not overpower the flavor of the dish. If you aren’t too familiar with this champagne of vinegars, I do hope you will now be encouraged to try balsamic vinegar in your own kitchen.
Deborah Mele 2011