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04/12/2013

~ A Real-Deal Italian Ingredient: Balsamic Vinegar ~

IMG_4798The Italian word "balsamico" means "balsam-like or "curative". Balsamic vinegar was introduced to the United States in the late 1970's and quickly became the darling of restaurant chefs, followed by gourmet cooks.  It is hard to believe that thirty-some years ago almost none of us in America had even heard of it. This wonderful condiment is still made in Modena, Italy, where it is aged in oak or other wooden kegs.  While it is technically considered a wine-vinegar, it is not made from wine.  It's made from grape pressings that have not been permitted to ferment into wine. During the process it takes on a mellow, full-bodied, slightly sweet flavor and a deep-reddish brown color. When a recipe calls for balsamic vinegar, there really is no substitute for it.  When purchasing balsamic vinegar, always look for brands that denote Modena or Reggio, which are the only two authentic sources.  There's more:  

All balsamic vinegar is not created equal!  

There are two types:  artisanal and commercial!

BalsamicVinegarBarrelsArtisanal balsamic vinegar is made by slowly simmering sweet, white Trebbiano grapes in copper cauldrons over an open flame and reducing the juice by 50%.  The end result, called "must", is transferred to graduated-in-size wooden kegs made of various types of wood (oak, cherry, chestnut, juniper and mulberry) and aged for at least 12 years.  The artisan works meticulously, transferring the ever-more concentrated vinegar down the line, so it takes on the flavors of the different woods, until 1-2 liters of vinegar finally emerge from the smallest barrel!  

6a0120a8551282970b015437ef5e4e970c-120wiThe vinegar is classified into groups by maturation:  young (3-5 years), middle-aged (6-12 years), old (12-25 years), and the highly-prized, very old (25-150 years), known as:  Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.

Artisanal varieties, which are quite pricey, are very complex (tasting of honey, fig, raisin, caramel and wood) and have an aroma similar to a fine port.  Traditional balsamic is sipped like liqueur and is used sparingly as a last minute finishing touch on meat and fowl, or, as a topping for cheese, fruit, cake or ice-cream.

According to What's Cooking America:  "The first historical reference to balsamic vinegar dates back to 1046, when a bottle of balsamic vinegar was given to Emperor Enrico III of Fanconia as a gift.  In the middle ages, it was used as a disinfectant.  It also had a reputation as a miracle cure -- good for everything from sore throats to labor pains."

Italian families have been producing balsamic vinegar for about 900 years, but never to be sold.  To this day their heirloom recipes are well-guarded family secrets that are passed down from generation to generation and kept from the rest of the world and even other Italians.   Il_570xN.370092143_kymhTraditionally, an Italian family that makes balsamic (which requires maintaining an "acetaia", or "vinegar room"), puts up a barrel each time a child is born and serves it on his 21st birthday, or, gives it away as part of her dowry.  On special occasions that require a host or hostess to make a champagne-like toast, balsamico tradizionale is passed to family and friends in tiny glass viles!  

It wasn't until Francesco Bertoli (along with a group of 22 other long-time Italian balsamic vinegar aficionados) spent a decade creating a consortium to produce an artisanal balsamic it was willing to share with the world, did balsamic vineger get sold to us.  The standards administered by the consortia in Modena and Reggio Emilia govern every aspect of how balsamic vinegar is aged and produced.  This includes the shape of the bottle, all aspects of the labeling, and, even the covering of the cap.  Thank-you Mr. Bertoli!!!

Liquid Gold:  Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena

IMG_4652The real-deal stuff comes in a 3 1/2-ounce bulb-shaped bottle with a consortium seal over the cap as well as on the label.  Red and silver labels indicate 12-18 years of aging, and, gold lables, like this one, indicate a minimum of 25 years.  Red and silver labels range in price from $50-$250 dollars a bottle!  

The "gold standard", or, gold labeled bottle can fetch as much as $500. This balsamic vinegar is not even intended for drizzing.  It is drawn from barrels that date back as early as 1650 and it gets savored by the drop!

They are all dark in color, syrupy in consistency, with mild acidity and a perfectly balanced, pleasant, sweet and savory flavor!  

They all come in a beautiful box with a book telling you all about the manufacturing process.  There are recipes in the book too, but, unless you are fluent in Italian (I'm not), the book does you no real good! 

6a0120a8551282970b0153941b73c9970b-320wiCommercial Balsamic Vinegar, which is much less expensive than artisanal balsamic vinegar, is made by blending good wine vinegar, some reduced juice ("must") and young balsamic vinegar.  One quick look at a shelf of balsamic vinegar in the grocery store is bound to cause confusion.  You'll find $5.00 bottles next to $25.00 bottles. These commercial grade (referred to as "cheap") balsamic vinegars are just fine for making vinaigrettes, to cook with, and, even to reduce on the stovetop to make a thick glaze for finishing or topping dishes.  Before purchasing, read the labels. Choose one that does not add brown sugar or caramel to mimic the better-quality commercial ones.

So what about commercial grade white balsamic vinegar?

6a0120a8551282970b01774325dbfb970d-120wiWhite balsamic vinegar is a blend of white grape juice ("must"), from Spergola grapes, and white wine vinegar.  It is then cooked at a low temperature to avoid any darkening of the product.  Some producers age the vinegar in wooden kegs while others use stainless steel.  While dark and white balsamic vinegars have similar tastes, the dark balsamic vinegar tends to be sweeter and thicker.

From a personal standpoint, in culinary applications using delicate foods (mild-flavored fish and vegetables), white balsamic vineger is preferable to dark because it won't overpower the taste of dish.  Its flavor, when compared to dark balsamic, is somewhat understated, meaning:  it provides the tartness of dark with a smoother edge.  Furthermore, its clean, clear appearance will not change the pretty color of the food!

IMG_4772"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary, and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 3013)

Comments

Nice for all sorts of dishes. The balsamic vinegar bottles are nice to work with for craft projects too!

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