Balsamic Vinegar is a coveted yet sometimes misunderstood condiment. As the owner of an Italian food store, I speak to people daily who have questions about balsamic vinegar. This article is this a compilation of information regarding the most common questions, comments and/or misconceptions. Hopefully this information helps you, the consumer, make the most informed decision, and purchase the appropriate balsamic for the occasion.
How to Make Balsamic Vinegar
To answer this we first need to define the three different types of balsamic vinegar. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Emilia-Romagna and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. For the purposes of this article, we will be concentrating on the Modena region balsamic vinegar.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
The hillsides of Modena Italy provide the best environment for growing Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, the grape varieties are instrumental in the production and process of making Balsamic Vinegar. The unfermented juice of these grapes or known commonly as the “mus” or “must,” is slowly reduced over a very low heat then treated with a “mother” balsamic vinegar and aged in wooden casks for a minimum of 12 years, aging especially in oak adds flavor and concentrates the natural flavors of the grapes. This exact method of making balsamic vinegar has been a time-honored Italian tradition for well over a thousands years. In order to receive the prestigious D.O.P (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) designation and Traditional classification, this process must be followed with strict guidelines intended to protect this time-honored traditional Italian process. This process is then examined by the consortium of traditional balsamic producers who control the approval and bottling of the traditional product is it then, by law, is able to be referred to as, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. These vinegars are very expensive due to the low yield that results from the aging process, and usually cost around $30-$150 per fluid ounce! This makes even the most gourmet meal worthy of only one or two drops.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
This type of balsamic is a blend of the Traditional balsamic mixed in with a potent wine vinegar. The majority of Balsamic Vinegar on the United States and global market, as a whole, falls in this category. When distinguishing quality of a blended balsamic, the quality of the ingredients, as well as the quantity of Ingredients and the amount of time for which they have been aged. The only acceptable ingredients found in Balsamic Vinegar of Modena are grape must and a quality wine vinegar, in some instances companies will use caramel for coloring. The quality of the aged wine vinegar will directly affect the quality of the overall Balsamic Vinegar of Modena since it is aged together with the traditional balsamic vinegar. The process of making balsamic vinegar of Modena is taking the concentrated must, cooked must, or a blend of the two, mix that with a good quality wine vinegar to create a mass which is then fermented and aged. What makes this differ from the Traditional is that the final product is more directly affected by a high quality and better blend of superior ingredients, instead of a longer aging process. Unlike the traditional, which has a government organization monitoring the process, exact aging claims cannot be deemed accurate, they are often mixed to control consistency and yield. For this reason, most companies will not claim product age anywhere on their packaging. Instead, AIB was formed to distinguish the level of quality of the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena using market research from consumer and expert tasters judgements. They use a “leaf” system 1-4 with 4 being the highest quality (more to come on AIB)
What is the Best Balsamic Vinegar?
I you are looking to buy a Traditional Aged Balsamic Vinegar, then the amount of reduction that takes place over a long period of time will be the deciding factor on quality. The longer it ages, the less volume is yielded, and the more expense it becomes. This is the direct reason behind the cost of a traditional aged balsamic vinegar. The older it is the more it costs. Check out our 100 year aged Balsamic Vinegar which is perfect if you are for a high-end Christmas gift and you don’t mind shelling-out a few hundred dollars. This level of quality will impress people at the top of the culinary world with a single drop. Our favorite uses for this is a small drop on a thinly cut piece of parmigiano reggiano, strawberries and high-end dark chocolate with a high cocoa content. Avoid fruits with a high water content like apples and pears. If you are looking for a good, non-traditional balsamic vinegar, then the quality and the quantity of the grape must and the wine vinegar used in the production are crucial to the quality of the finished product. It is necessary to use the highest quality products due to the aging process, a lower quality starting blend can actually get worse with age and could potentially develop molds and/or poor aroma and flavor profile. These can be found between $10- $70 and are much more versatile and great on bruschetta, for salad dressings, dips, drizzles and a variety of marinades. Using a balsamic vinegar of like this alone will increase the quality of your final dish with no other additions.
Is Balsamic Vinegar Gluten Free?
Yes! Balsamic Vinegar is 100% gluten free. Some people question vinegar, in general, whether or not it is gluten free. The reason for this is that some vinegar originate from a gluten grain, like rice vinegar. Since Balsamic is the aged reduction of grape must and wine vinegar, there is no connection to any type of gluten grains.
Does Balsamic Vinegar Go Bad?
Due to its acidic nature, balsamic vinegar does not need to be refrigerated, with a virtually indefinite shelf life. It is rare, but crystallization of Balsamic Vinegar happens where there is an imbalance of sugar content. Tiny sugar crystals will coat the inside of the bottle. If this happens, the vinegar is safe to consume and should have no difference in taste, smell or texture.
Is Balsamic Vinegar Good For You?
There is a lot of information supporting the health benefits of balsamic vinegar. The key is moderation to everything. Simply replacing a store bought salad dressing with a couple tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a drizzle of good Balsamic Vinegar, with salt, pepper, garlic, not only reduces your intake of sodium and unnecessary calories, but tastes so much better.