Facts about Balsamic Vinegar; the origin, qualities, uses, cost, and other interesting information.
Most people would agree that all wines are not created equally. An $8 bottle of wine likely won't be of the same quality as a $25 bottle...and a $70 bottle is probably of a higher caliber yet again. The price difference isn't just arbitrary; it reflects the country and region, variety of grapes, the process of making the wine, how the wine is aged and for how long. Now, if you're wondering what this has to do with balsamic vinegar, the answer is...lots! Yes, selecting a bottle of balsamic vinegar is much the same as selecting a bottle of wine, and largely for the same reasons. (Plus, they both come from grapes.)
Although the use of balsamic vinegar in North America has increased in popularity over the past ten years, I have discovered that few people are aware of the variety, quality, taste, and price differences available to the consumer. In case you are one of those who are unfamiliar with the many uses and varieties of balsamic vinegar, and don't really know how to compare one to another, I have compiled a list for you, detailing these varieties and some suggestions of how you can enjoy it.
What is Balsamic Vinegar? Authentic, traditional balsamic vinegar is made in Modena, Italy or Reggio Emilia, Italy and is aged a minimum of twelve years, but can be aged up to 100 years! It is made from freshly harvested Trebbiano grapes, which are crushed and cooked the same day, producing grape must. This grape must is then aged, using several different wooden casks - oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, and juniper, for example. Each year or few years, the aging vinegar is transferred into progressively smaller barrels as the liquid slowly evaporates. (The casks are never fully emptied, but new grape must is added to them, to begin again the entire process of turning it into a new batch of vinegar, which will again be aged...) Each different type of wood lends a distinct flavour of its own, mingling to create a mellow, sweet, rich dark brown, and naturally thick (the consistency of syrup), vinegar. What sets balsamic vinegar apart from some other vinegars, is that it is not made from actual wine, but from the fresh juice of the grapes, and the process of aging turns it directly to vinegar.
What are the different qualities of Balsamic Vinegar?
Top grade, or balsamico tradizionale vinegar is almost always 6% acidity, from Modena or Reggio Emilia, (provinces in Italy), and the list of ingredients will read, simply, Grapes or Grape Must or Grape Juice. There also might be a notation that the product contains sulphites, which occurs naturally when the vinegar is aging, and which have not been added. Genuine Balsamic vinegar is strictly controlled by law, and as mentioned earlier, must be aged a minimum of 12 years; the labels will be well marked, stamped and certified. Stravecchiois vinegar that has been aged 20 years or longer. The price for these vinegars can range from approximately $200 - $400 for 100 ml to 365 ml (but it is possible to spend $1000 or more!) Balsamico Tradizionale vinegars are very difficult to find in North America, unless you know of a shop or deli that imports it; otherwise, it can be purchased online.
Commercial Grade balsamic vinegars are not a true balsamic, but are actually wine vinegars, with artificial colour, caramel, sugar, thickeners (such as guar gum), or other additives, and are made to mimic the real thing... and sometimes they do a pretty good job! If this was the only "balsamic" vinegar available, you could be quite happy with it. But, compared directly to an authentic balsamic...well, you will definitely know the difference. Price varies, but can range from $5 to $15, depending upon the size (can often be purchased in larger quantities, such as 500 ml, litre or 1.5 litre.)
Condiment Grade. This is the mid-grade and falls into two categories: traditional balsamic vinegar mixed with commercial grade to make it more affordable; and a balsamic which is also of excellent quality, also produced in Italy (perhaps even in Modena), but may not have been aged for a full 12+ years, and is not controlled by law or certified. The ingredient list still reads as only containing grapes or grape must, and it will have still been aged for a period. Usually, if a vinegar has been aged between 5 and 10 years, it is still a very fine product, and the quality will be of noticeable difference from that of commercial grade. The price of these products range from about $20 - $200.
How, and with what, do you eat it? The most common uses of balsamic vinegar are as a dip for breads (usually mixed with a quality olive oil) and as a salad dressing. When using as a bread
dipper, first pour the olive oil in a shallow dish, or a plate, and then drizzle an equal amount of the vinegar through the oil. Dip warmed Italian bread, foccacia bread, or herbed bread (actually, any fresh artisan bread will work very nicely)...and devour! This is perfect served with a hearty vegetable salad for a quick and healthful summer supper. For a change, you can add...
- fresh or dried herbs,
- peppers, or
- grated parmesan cheese.
All of these same ingredients can be combined in various different ways to make an unforgettable salad dressing...you'll never buy an oil and vinegar dressing again once you've tried making your own. Or, you can use balsamic vinegar as a marinade for meat, poultry, and fish. Use the vinegar alone or combined with herbs and garlic; put the meat in a shallow bowl, add the balsamic vinegar marinade, turning to coat both sides, and let sit in the refridgerator for an hour prior to cooking it. Grill, roast, or broil for a delectable, tender treat. And, as strange as it sounds, balsamic vinegar is also used in desserts (for example, poured over ice cream, yogurt, or fruit!); but you'll need to use the highest grade you can afford for the taste to combine well with these foods, as the high quality balsamic vinegars are sweeter, thicker, and more mellow than a commercial grade vinegar. In it's country of origin, balsamic vinegar is commonly enjoyed when sipped as an aperitif.
Whatever your experience has been with using balsamic vinegar, I do hope you get the chance to continue enjoying -- or to enjoy for the first time -- the mix of sweet and tart, smooth and rich...all combined into one amazing food that has stood the test of time for 900 years.
Copyright 2010 by Sharla Smith; Photos copyright 2010 by Sharla Smith
Credit and Sources:
Product literature from Lucini Italia Gran Reserva Balsamico
The Italian Kitchen Bible, pg. 107; (K. Whiteman, J. Wright, and A. Boggiano. Hermes House/Anness Publishing Limited)
http://www.shopbalsamicvinegar.com/about-balsamic-vinegar.php (a great place for info on a variety of Balsamic Vinegars and the making of balsamic vinegar)
http://www.drgourmet.com/askdrgourmet/balsamicvinegar.shtml (great source of information...written by a chef who is also a medical doctor, so he's got the inside scoop on health benefits of a cornucopia of foods)
http://hubpages.com/hub/Health-Benefits-of-Balsamic-Vinegar (good source with many links to learn just how good balsamic vinegar is for you!)