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The Truth About Balsamic Vinegar

Posted By Peter Jeffries On July 6, 2010 @ 5:58 pm In Cooking & Baking,Spreads & Dips | Comments Disabled

If you like to add a little extra quality to your salads you’ve probably splashed out and bought one of those authentic-looking bottles of balsamic vinegar that some of the more select supermarkets like to display on their specialty condiment shelves.

Commercial balsamic vinegar (the kind on those supermarket shelves) is a huge step up from the acidic brown liquid you generally find splashed across fish and chips. It is smooth, slightly syrupy, deep brown and has a tangy sweetness in the higher-quality brands that makes it almost sip-able. It’ll add a more complex palette of flavours to your vinaigrettes and a richness to stews and casseroles that you just can’t get with good old malt vinegar.

But did you know that that bottle with it’s faux aged label and it’s references to Italy is probably not true, traditional balsamic vinegar at all?

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

Traditional balsamic vinegar is made in Italy by only two consortia; that of Modena and that of Reggio Emilia. These consortia produce balsamic vinegars called, respectively, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” and “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia“.

Bottles of this traditional balsamic vinegar sell for well over $100.00 each. It’s very special stuff and quite different from the commercial balsamic vinegar you may have bought from the local supermarket.

How Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is Made

Making traditional balsamic vinegar is a very slow process. After harvesting, white trebbiano grapes are boiled for 24 – 30 hours in open pots until they have reduced to about one third of their original volume. This cooked grape solution is called “must”.

The must is then fermented in a series of barrels, each made from a different wood. Woods used include acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and chestnut. The barrels are only filled to about three quarters capacity in order to allow evaporation to occur. The must will reduce by approximately 10% each year through evaporation, becoming progressively more concentrated.

As the must sits in the barrels it acquires a dark brown colour from contact with the wood, its taste intensifies and the solution becomes sweet and viscous. The sugar in the grape juice turns to alcohol and this alcohol then turns to acid which transforms the liquid into vinegar.

By Italian law the vinegar must ferment for a minimum of 12 years in order to be allowed to be sold as “Balsamico Tradizionale”. The two consortia, however routinely produce vinegars of 18 and 25 years, and some traditional balsamic vinegar is aged for as long as 30 years.

Traditional Balsamic Uses

This expensive and lovingly created nectar, prized by today’s chefs for its exclusivity and its complex array of flavours, finds its way into a number of today’s trendier dishes. Traditionally, though, balsamic vinegar is served as a condiment with cheese or fruit, in desserts and as a special seasoning for steak and fish.

Aceto Balsamico di Modena

So, given that we aren’t paying anything near a hundred dollars a bottle for the balsamic vinegar we’re buying at the supermarket, what are we actually spending our money on?

Well, in the worst case scenario the bottle you pick up might contain nothing more than red wine vinegar thickened and flavoured with ingredients like caramel and guar gum. It has gone through no aging process and didn’t even start off as must.

More likely, though, you’re holding a bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena (notice the absence of the word “tradizionale”). This is a mixture of must and red wine vinegar and is a good substitute for general use. Aceto Balsamico di Modena may or may not have undergone some aging, depending on the brand, but one indicator of quality is the percentage of must it contains – the higher the better.

Aceto Balsamico di Modena is excellent in vinaigrettes and in hot dishes that need richness and a little extra zing. A good brand will even be sweet enough to drizzle over strawberries or ice cream.

A Higher Quality Condiment

You might not be able to afford a bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, but that needn’t stop you splashing out just a little on some Aceto Balsamico di Modena. It’ll cost more than a chip shop variety vinegar, but it won’t break the bank, and you’ll be rewarded with a brand new taste sensation.

To learn about cooking with balsamic vinegar check out this video.

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