If you frequent trendy or upscale restaurants, chances are you will hear someone in your dinner party or at a nearby table discreetly whisper, "What is balsamic vinegar?" as they peruse the menu. Although it's been around for thousands of years, it is a relatively new ingredient to many American diners and cooks.
What Is Balsamic Vinegar?
With origins in Italy, simply defined, balsamic vinegar is a condiment traditionally made from white grapes. It has a strong, distinct aroma and tart taste tempered by various other sweet ingredients.
Types of Balsamic Vinegar
Choosing a balsamic vinegar for cooking is challenging as it varies greatly in taste, price and even packaging. As with many products, all these factors require consideration as a whole, as high prices are no more a guarantee of quality than a fancy label or elaborate seal.
Modena and Reggio
Balsamic vinegars from these Italian provinces are top of the line, the best available worldwide. They are produced according to stringent guidelines from the concentrated juice of white grapes, usually of the Trebbiano variety. Each batch undergoes meticulous quality testing procedures prescribed by Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) board. This government panel, established in 1992, guarantees the authenticity of products from specific regions to protect consumers from inferior copycat products.
This balsamic vinegar is deep brown, almost black, and has a complex flavor full of lush, sweet undertones. Its flavor is so intense it is normally doled out by drops rather than in traditional measurements like teaspoons or fractions thereof. The best vinegars in this category are aged for 12 up to 150 years in frequently changed wood casks made from cherry, acacia, oak, juniper, chestnut, ash or mulberry trees.
Commercial Grade Balsamic Vinegar
This grade of balsamic vinegar is mass-produced, but most brands are perfectly acceptable in recipes, especially vinaigrettes. Conventionally made from wine vinegar that has caramel or brown sugar added for flavoring, guar gum or corn flour usually thickens the solution. Some varieties are aged for short periods of time. The most highly acclaimed brands in this category sold in the United States include Fini, Cattani and Cavalli.
As the least expensive balsamic vinegar on the market, these are frequently inferior quality wine vinegars with added flavorings and colorings. Before using them in recipes, taste them to be sure they are not rancid or so sour that they would destroy the overall flavor of the dish. Research different brands online to reveal candid customer reviews that make purchasing this grade of balsamic wine easier.
Buying the Best
Aspiring chefs and gourmet home cooks usually prize an authentic bottle of traditional Modeno or Reggio balsamic vinegar as much as bottle of fine, aged wine. Giving a bottle of this esteemed product as a gift requires knowing what to look for to guarantee quality and authenticity.
Age and Pricing
The higher quality varieties are aged between 25 and 50 years. Priced between $50 and $500 for a 3.4 ounce bottle, they are available online and in food specialty or gourmet stores.
Authentic brands have the word "tradizionale" on the label, along with the number of years the product has been aged. The cap and label should both have the PDO seal from the product authentication board. Modena balsamic vinegar is only marketed in a bulb-shaped, 100-milliliter bottle. Red Modena labels mean the vinegar has been aged for 12 years and a silver label indicates 18 years of aging. Gold-capped bottles have been aged for at least 20 years.
Explore and Enjoy
Balsamic vinegar is wildly versatile, adding complexity and richness to fresh strawberries as well as baked potatoes, poultry, meat, stir fried or steamed vegetables, risotto and, of course, salad dressings. Use it sparingly, as its intensity is surprising, and it is sure to inspire your dinner guests to ask, with pleased and satisfied smiles, "So, please tell me, exactly what is balsamic vinegar?"