I sometimes get confused by the incredible array of products that are on the shelves under the “Balsamic Vinegar” label. True balsamic vinegar, always labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is a truly exceptional product that has been produced since 1000 AD and it was originally used as a tonic, as balsamico in Italian comes from the root of balsamo, balm, which is defined as a healing ointment, or a soothing restorative agent (Merriam-Webster).
Balsamic vinegar is not made from wine, like regular vinegar, but rather from must of Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes, typical products of Emilia Romagna and high in sugar content. The grapes are slowly cooked to create a concentrate, which is then off to age for a minimum of 12 years in a family of wooden barrels placed in an acetaia (literally, the place where vinegar is made), a under-roof location where the barrels are preserved without sealing. The barrels vary in size and are made from different woods, from the largest to the smallest usually oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, ash and juniper. The newly reduced must is placed in the largest barrel, and as the evaporation process each year reduces the content in the barrels, each is topped off with content from the next largest one. It is a long and laborious process that yields a syrupy end product, whose taste is a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. Only the balsamic that has gone through his process can be called tradizionale- you won’t find a lot of products with this label!
Nowadays, we find balsamic vinegar all over the place: a product this labor intensive cannot yield as much to fill the shelves of grocery stores all over the world! Industrial production of balsamic vinegar bears no resemblance to the original product, and often the cheaper versions of balsamic are nothing more than white vinegar with caramel syrup added.
To pick the best product off the shelves, look closely at the ingredient list. The first ingredient (the one making the most of the product by percentage) should be the must of grapes, and not vinegar. Caramel should not be listed as an ingredient, and nor should be added flavorings either natural or artificial. Also, look for a bottle that says that it has been aged in wooden barrels, as sometimes “aged in wood”simply means that wooden chips were added as the vinegar ages. The price tag will be revealing: aceto balsamico tradizionale is sold for many hundred dollars per liter. Some of the traditional producers will put on the market a diluted version of balsamic for a much more reasonable price tag that will not carry the word tradizionale on the label.
The best use of balsamic vinegar is with salty and fatty things: some meat dishes are fabolous with aceto balsamico, but one of the best pairing for it is Parmigiano Reggiano- as well as other aged cheeses. Just a drop or two will enhance both flavors, and served together as an appetizer will make you memorable to your guests! I like my baslamic vinegar drizzled over strawberries or ice cream- and quite surprisingly a spoon of balsamic vinegar is an excellent digestive!
I keep three types of Balsamico at home: a cheap bottle for everyday use, more acidic and perfect to drizzle over salad- which I buy at Costco; a pricier version, more dense and a tad sweeter which I use to make filetto all’aceto blsamico, balsamic vinegar filet, that I find at Cosentino’s; and a bottle of Tradizionale which I save for Parmesan cheese, strawberries, and ice cream, a real treat to take out for important dinners and Christmas- I got it for our wedding, but you can find it at the Pasta Shop, Draegers and A.G. Ferrari.
Filed under: Traditional Foods