When dining at most any restaurant in northern Italy, the waiter will often bring bottles of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the table. I adore both, but I am surprised at how few Americans have discovered the unique characteristics of balsamic vinegar of Modena.
Sadly, consumers in the United States are provided many “commercial” options but few offer the real culinary experience of sampling authentic barrel-aged balsamic vinegar from the region of Emilia Romagna in Italy.
While the Italian Growers Association has rather clear standards on how balsamic vinegar should be labeled, they have little authority to enforce standards. As such, many consumers are exposed to deceptively labeled bottles of uncertain providence.
In particular, consumers seeking authentic balsamic vinegar should beware of the following:
- Commercial brands of balsamic vinegar pour like vinegar rather than syrup. Excessive concentration of wine vinegar to “mosto cotto” or wine must or balsamic concentrate.
- Fruit flavored kinds of vinegar. The flavor of fruits often masks a distinctly inferior product – an abundance of wine vinegar and fruit extract and very little barrel-aged mosto cotto.
- Any balsamic vinaigrette.
- Any bottle with an age (“18 years”) printed on the bottle. This is prohibited by Italian regulations and makes no sense since the mosto cotto is moved from barrel to barrel each year and it is impossible to assign an age to the vinegar.
- Traditional or DOP balsamic vinegar is sold ONLY in distinctive 100-milliliter bottles mandated by the Italian Growers Association. The content of these bottles is tested, bottled and sealed by the Italian Growers Association to avoid fraud. ANY bottle of balsamic that is not in one of these bottles is fraudulently labeled and misrepresents its content.
Many chefs tout a “balsamic reduction.” In effect, they apply heat to rather inexpensive balsamic vinegar to produce a more concentrated flavor. Authentic balsamic vinegar reduces “naturally” through evaporation. The taste is quite different. In fact, I would only use authentic balsamic vinegar (no heat reduction) to flavor my foods.