Balsamic Vinegar Facts
Why is there such a price range?
There are two varieties of vinegars,wine vinegar and traditional balsamic vinegar.
Wine vinegar or in French, vinaigre, which means “sour wine” is made from red or white wine, and it’s encouraging if the label can tell you from which grapes. The traditional process takes up to five months for the air and bacteria to turn the wine sour. Commercial producers have been known toforce-feed air and bacteria, as well as employ high temperatures, to speed up the agitation process, which can complete the conversion in a day. Sure, you have vinegar, but do you really want that on your salad or with your favourite crusty breads?
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from fresh grape juice, or “grape must.” Historically, acetobalsamicotradizionale was a family heirloom in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, specifically the towns of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Balsamic Vinegar was long considered a digestivo meant for sipping after meals. The grape juice, orgrape must, is cooked at slow temperatures (to avoid caramelization and bitterness) until it is slightly weaker in consistency than maple syrup. It eventually makes its way to wooden barrels, where a bit of the aged heirloom vinegar is mixed with the new. It is transferred to a series of increasingly smaller barrels as it becomes denser, aging for a minimum of 12 years. It is eventually judged by a panel for its quality. If it passes the test it is then placed in regulation bottles (whose shape also proves its authenticity), given a registration number, and sealed with a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) label.
That does not discount the value of everyday balsamic vinegar, especially for salad.In fact, most Italians frown upon using traditional balsamic on salads since its syrupy, condensed flavour should play a more prominent role as the “crowning touch” on roasts, grilled radicchio, an omelette, parmesan risotto, for dessert on fruit or ice cream. However, there are a lot of imposters out there filling their vinegar with additives to achieve the right flavour and color so this is a prime example of how important it can be to read the ingredients. There should be no mention of extracts, sugars, preservatives, or colorings.
Wine Vinegar Unfortunately, most mainstream supermarkets offer only wine vinegar that is industrially made (with an accelerated aging process). If it’s your only option, however, try simple rice vinegar which provides a sweet yet rightfully acidic option or champagne vinegar. Make sure to always reading the labels for any ingredients that shouldn’t be there. In any case, beware of the strong, clear white vinegar variety with a low price tag. Chefs use it to disinfect their sinks! This is a good reason to buy your vinegar online from trusted producers.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar For traditional balsamic vinegar, the best thing you can do is go to a store where the staff seems knowledgeable about the product, or go online to a trusted source, like Cooking Essence. Usually stores won’t crack open an expensive bottle for a taste but sometimes theywill, so it doesn’t hurt to ask!
- Look for the products with the bottles stating the origin of MO (Modena) or RE (Reggio Emilia)
- You should see the word Traditional on the bottle.
- The best vinegars will simply list one sole ingredient. Commercial vinegars are usually made in just a few hours from harsh wine vinegar sweetened with sugar and coloured with caramel. There should be no mention of extracts, sugars, preservatives, or colorings.
- If it’s surprisingly cheap, it’s probably not authentic.
- Like olive oil, never keep balsamic vinegar in the refrigerator and store it away from sunlight and high temperatures.
- There is no reason to ever heat traditional balsamic vinegar, unless it’s a quick toss in a pan to mix with some ingredients or used within a recipe.
Everyday Balsamic Vinegar Excluding the industrial versions, which can contain caramel and other additives for colour and flavour, the best options usually, come in either two forms, depending on the producer:
- Grape must that has simply been boiled until it is condensed by about half
- Grape must that has been condensed and is then aged in wooden barrels for six, eight, even 18 years.
The important thing is to read the label and make sure there are no additives or sweeteners. Look for an everyday balsamic that comes from a producer of traditional balsamic vinegar since they are not likely to adulterate the process and will have the good stuff on hand to start with. The longer it is aged, the more expensive and better tasting it will be.
Why is traditional balsamic vinegar so expensive?
One word: supply. Only so many bottles of balsamic vinegar from Modena are produced for the world each year. That means most of so-called “traditional balsamic vinegar” on store shelves is not authentic.
Are there less expensive alternatives?
Yes: condimento and saba. Condimento is balsamic vinegar that has been rejected by the judging panel as “flawed” but the producer would rather sell it than return it to the barrels for further aging.. Saba, unlike the traditional balsamic vinegar, is not aged in barrels and is created by boiling the grape must until it is simply reduced and thickened.