With a rich history that dates back at least a 1,000 years, one would think that balsamic vinegar is a relatively simple product to classify. Sadly, that is not the case. Today, many producers have succumbed to the temptation of diluting the grape must or “mosto cotto” with inexpensive wine vinegars and introducing additives such as caramel to add color and substance to this rich wine syrup. Fortunately, the Italian authorities have recently introduced strong measures to guarantee the authenticity of this gourmet food product.
Found below and in the sidebars is useful information to help guide your purchasing decision. An informed consumer is always the best remedy to stem the proliferation of inferior products that are often factory-produced and mass-marketed to the detriment of artisan farmers.
Brief History of Balsamic Vinegar
According to Leonardo’s and Roberto’s Gourmet Blends, “the first historical reference to balsamic vinegar dates back to 1046 when a bottle of balsamic vinegar was reportedly given to Emperor Enrico III of Franconia as a gift.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.”
Some historians suggest that this syrupy vinegar may date back to the Greeks and even more ancient societies in the Middle East. In any event, authentic balsamic vinegar seems to found its current roots in Modena in an area just between Ferrara and Reggio Emilia. Careful methods of growing, cooking and aging the grapes were introduced to Modena farmers in the second half of 1500 when the Corte Ducale Estense moved from Ferrara.
What is Balsamic Vinegar?
Balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes cooked down by over 50% of the original volume to create a thick syrup called mosto cotto or cooked “grape must.” This “grape must” is then aged in wood barrels (oak, chestnut, cherry, and other woods) for periods ranging from several months to many years. The flavor of the must intensifies over the years, with the vinegar becoming sweet, viscous and very concentrated. Each year the vinegar is transferred to different wood barrels so that the vinegar can obtain some of the flavors of the different woods. The age of the vinegar is divided into young – from 3 to 5 years maturation; middle-aged 6 to 12 years and the highly prized very old which is at least 12 years and up to 150 years old.
Cooking with Balsamic Vinegar
Because of its distinctive agro-dolce taste, this distinctive Italian wine vinegar is an excellent foil for practically any food. Pour a few dollops of the vinegar over Parmesan cheese or even ice cream and you will instantaneously create a superb and unique flavor profile. As home cooks, we will often add it to vegetables such as brussels sprouts or asparagus. It also works well with most meats such as pork belly, braised beef, and pork loin. In short, there are many inventive ways you become a “gourmet” Italian chef simply by using your imagination and a few drops of this rich vinegar. Click here to discover some of our favorite recipes from leading chefs and home cooks around the world.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
Although there are many vinegar substitutes and mislabeled and misrepresented products on the market, authentic balsamic vinegar is farmed and aged in Modena, Italy. According to Wikipedia,” the names ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena’ (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia’ (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia) are protected by both the Italian Denominazione di origine protetta and the European Union‘s Protected Designation of Origin.
Over the last several years, Italian growers and government regulators have introduced a number of labeling measures to protect the integrity the of brand. Click here to learn more about the various grades of Italian vinegars.
Balsamic Vinegar Nutrition
This rich vinegar from the vineyards of Modena is reputed to have many remarkable curative traditions, but recent USDA studies have indicated that this organic vinegar is low in calories and its glycemic load maybe beneficial for those with diabetes. I hesitate to suggest that regular consumption of this product will improve your health, but the New Health Guide argues that balsamic vinegar is rich in antioxidants and may reduce heart disease and cancer and improve digestion. In any event, you get a lot of flavor from just a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar without the carbs of most factory-processed dressings. If you would like to learn about the nutritional values of this wine vinegar, please CLICK HERE.
Best Balsamic Vinegar
Choosing a balsamic vinegar that is “right for you” is often a matter of taste. Some condiment vinegars work fine and often mimic the flavor of balsamic, but appropriately labeled and controlled products tend to provide the consumer with a more satisfying experience. In general, “authentic” balsamic vinegar tends to be a viscous syrup rather than the “watery” substance that one finds in most commercial and low-priced vinegars. This concentrated flavor generally means that you you need far less of the “authentic” balsamic vinegar to achieve a flavor profile worth savoring.
My wife and I are terribly biased and, as such, whole-heartedly recommend Gourmet Living’s I.G.P. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. We have sampled many artisan Italian vinegars to bring you what we believe is the finest value for the price. For those who want to experiment with the more expensive Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (100% wine must), we recommend Gourmet Living’s D.O.P vinegar made from 100% Trebbiano grapes and aged for no less than 12 years (see image above).
FAQ Balsamic Vinegar
CLICK HERE for answers to frequently asked questions regarding balsamic vinegar. While answers to these questions are included in many public forums, we have grouped some of the more relevant questions into key categories to help keep consumers better informed about their purchasing decisions. If you have a specific question that you do not feel has been adequately address, please do not hesitate to drop us an EMAIL.
To discover more about balsamic vinegar is made to help create a new flavor profile for your dishes, CLICK HERE!
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