Over the past decade or so, balsamic vinegar has exploded onto the culinary scene, becoming the darling of master chefs and a ubiquitous item in gourmet food shops, supermarkets, fancy restaurants, pizza joints, and even fast-food chains. But what is it? What distinguishes balsamic vinegar from other wine vinegars? Indeed, what distinguishes one type of balsamic vinegar from another? And what role does balsamic vinegar play in our cherished activities of eating and cooking? There is much more to balsamic than you might think.
- Other Names: Aceto Balsamico di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
- Shelf Life: Very long
- Substitutes: Mosto Cotto, Saba
- Origin: Modena (Emilia-Romagna), Italy
- Name: Refers to balsam and balm
What Is Balsamic Vinegar?
Balsamic vinegar has been produced in and around its birthplace, the city of Modena, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, for nearly a thousand years. According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, balsam refers to "an aromatic and usually oily and resinous substance" from plants that can be used to make a balm, and the first written reference of this term to vinegar appeared in 1747 in a register in the winery of the Duke of Este in Modena.
This is a wine-producing area, specializing in trebbiano (white) and lambrusco (red) grape varieties, and it was the tradition to set aside some of the must—the unfermented juice of grapes—to make a very special vinegar. The way it was made centuries ago is still pretty much the way traditional balsamic vinegar is made today.
The juice is slowly cooked down to the consistency of a syrup, concentrating its flavors and aromas, and darkening its color. It is then cooled and transferred to wooden barrels, where the cooked must undergoes a slow fermentation, creating alcohol which, in turn, is attacked by acetic bacteria, turning the wine into vinegar. This is followed by a very lengthy aging process of 12 years or more. During this time, as the liquid in the barrel evaporates, the contents are transferred to smaller and smaller barrels of different types of wood, such as chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper. After that, the vinegar may be aged for an additional period of time before bottling. Needless to say, all these procedures have a significant impact on the final product.
But not all balsamic vinegars are made in the traditional manner.
Traditional Balsamic vs. Red Wine Vinegar
It is pretty easy to determine the basic differences between balsamic and wine vinegar: Balsamic is darker, sweeter, and thicker than red wine vinegar. What gets a bit tricky is distinguishing one type of balsamic from another. While there are many different types of balsamic vinegars, they basically boil down (pardon the pun) to three varieties, which form a sort of quality pyramid.
At the bottom of the pyramid is the commercial version, labeled simply balsamic vinegar" or "aceto balsamico." This a mass-market product based on wine vinegar with coloring, thickening agents, and flavoring added to it to simulate the flavor and consistency of a traditional balsamic vinegar. This is the least expensive of the balsamic vinegars (though usually a bit more expensive than most red wine vinegars) and the most familiar one to people outside of Italy. In fact, it does not even have to be made in Italy.
The next level up is Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP (protected geographical indication). These vinegars must be made in the area of Modena and consist of a minimum of 10 percent concentrated grape juice, minimum 10 percent wine vinegar, and two percent caramel. An unspecified amount of older (10 years or more) vinegar may be added, and the must may come from seven approved grape varieties.
At the top of the pyramid is the original balsamic vinegar known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or Reggio Emilia), made using the long and complicated traditional method. This product carries a DOP (protected appellation of origin) qualification, meaning that it must follow strict regulations and adhere to the established traditional procedure. This vinegar is made from only two local grape varieties—lambrusco and trebbiano—and must age for a minimum of 12 years; if it says stravecchio (extra old) on the label, it has aged for 25 years or more. Some even age for 50 years or longer. These vinegars represent the pinnacle of the category.
Balsamic Vinegar Uses
Originally, a spoonful of balsamic vinegar was taken as a tonic and an elixir, and tiny bottles of long-aged aceto balsamico were bestowed upon important people as a special mark of favor. Today, many people use it for everything as their go-to vinegar of choice. When it comes to balsamic vinegar, how you use it depends largely on which type you have.
How to Cook With Balsamic Vinegar
Basic balsamic vinegar is the one to use for dressing a salad, for a syrupy reduction to drizzle over food, or as a marinade. Besides undergoing a culinary procedure that changes the nature of the vinegar, these uses also require a considerable amount of it.
Look for a good Aceto Balsamico di Modena when you want both to showcase the vinegar and accentuate the food. This would be similar to how you might use a good extra-virgin olive oil: Drizzle it over something at the table, or add a splash to a sauce or cooking juices just before serving.
Use a traditional balsamic vinegar much as you would a fine wine: carefully and with respect for its integrity. After all, you want to taste and appreciate its unique flavor and complexity. Drizzle it over aged cheeses or rich gamy foods like roast squab or duck liver pâté, or serve a thimbleful with dessert or after supper as a digestivo.
What Does It Taste Like?
Balsamic vinegar is typified by its soft, rich palate feel and a notable sweetness balanced by acidity. A traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena or Reggio Emilia adds the unique character of specific local grape varieties and the multilayered complexity that comes from a time-honored production process and extended aging.
Balsamic Vinegar Substitute
If using it for a salad or marinade, substitute a good red wine vinegar. If you want a hint of the umami balsamic vinegars typically have, add a bit of soy sauce. And if you are looking for that grapey intensity, add a little grape juice concentrate. You can also look for other Italian condiments made from concentrated grape must such as mosto cotto or saba.
Balsamic Vinegar Recipes
Besides being used as a basic condiment, balsamic is a terrific and versatile ingredient in many types of dishes.
- Fig Jam With Wine and Balsamic Vinegar
- Steak and Mitsuba Herb Chirashi Sushi With Balsamic Soy Sauce
- Seared Scallops and Shrimp With Balsamic Strawberries
Where to Buy Balsamic Vinegar
Basic balsamic vinegar can be found in most groceries and supermarkets in the aisle with vinegars and oils. Gourmet food shops frequently stock balsamic vinegars from Modena, but if you are looking for traditional balsamic vinegar, go to Italian specialty shops, high-end food purveyors, or reputable online sites specializing in oils and vinegars or high-end Italian products.
Store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dark place away from heat, such as in the cupboard. It doesn't need to be refrigerated. It won't oxidize once opened and will keep indefinitely. Don't worry if you see some sediment at the bottom of the bottle. It is a natural byproduct of the aging process and is not harmful.