Understanding Balsamic Vinegar

For many recipes, vinegar is the counterpoint of candy"goodness" and the"foil" of oil .

Vinegar is what great wines are if they die and what humans are said to be when they're too sour.

Vinegar is kind of a villain in the ingredient world, and it's far too often regarded as an evil requirement to balance the more pleasant ones.

Nonetheless, in fact, vinegar is the quiet hero, actually preserving foods and bringing dishes to life using their unmistakable power of sour.

I have my vinegar favorites. Among them are tarragon vinegar, which makes my Bearnaise Sauce better; sherry vinegar, and that I use in my hoisin-based Mongolian marinade; and balsamic vinegar, and that I use in dressings, sauces, and, well, just because.

Perhaps it's balsamic that really captivates my culinary imagination because its one of a very few vinegars (rice wine vinegar being the other notable) that is the best of both worlds. It's sweet and sour.

Ben had it directly, but I think he forgot about balsamic. A more than 40-year-old balsamic vinegar is just about as sweet as honey. It is SO sweet that it's often utilized in desserts and can be a delicious topping over vanilla ice cream.

So just what is balsamic vinegar? And why is it so dark?

Balsamic vinegar is an Old World product (traditionally created in Italy) from the Middle Ages. It is not made as many vinegars are from aged wine but rather from freshly squeezed grape juice (Trebbiano & Lambrusco varietals), which has been reduced by simmering and then aged over years in progressively smaller wooden casks (chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash) of many wood forms during its aging tenure.

The two most-notable locales (consortia) of production in Italy are Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The word"balsamic" is derived from the Latin balsamum, meaning"balsam-like," which refers to the restorative or curative properties of the balsam sapling.

There are three types/qualities of balsamic vinegar:

Authentic, traditional, artisan balsamic vinegar--the only type that may legally be described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale in the EU.
A lesser-quality, commercial-grade balsamic vinegar made in an industrial scale and often artificially colored and sterile.
Condimento-grade goods, that are often a mix of the two above.
So what does balsamic vinegar taste like?

True balsamic vinegar is rich, glossy, and profound inky brownish in color. It has a complex flavor that balances the natural sweet-and-sour elements of the cooked grape juices together with traces of wood from the casks. As each year of aging progresses, the sweetness and viscosity increase before a vinegar of 50 years is extremely syrupy, sticky and decadent. And as you can imagine, that care and aging has its own prices with small, one-to-two ounce bottles costing hundreds of dollars

Thankfully, these aged vinegars are so intense and complex that small is required to impact a dish. Drizzled over grilled steak, fish, shellfish, risotto, Parmesan cheese, or even fresh strawberries, an aged balsamic's sweetness and lingering taste is an amazing experience.

However, you don't have to spend that sort of money to get a similar thrill. There are some great balsamic vinegars available on the market that can be had for well under $10, such as Academia Barillas, which we carry at Nino's.

How is it utilized?

Three- to 12-year-old balsamic vinegars are generally utilized in salad dressings, creamy dips, marinades, sauces as well as after-dinner digestives. The dark color and tart, caramel-like taste of a traditional balsamic vinegar adds an intriguing twist to otherwise common recipes.

And so, what is white balsamic vinegar? And about the balsamic cremes and glazes that are on the shelves nowadays?

White balsamic vinegar blends white grape with white wine vinegar and is cooked at a low temperature to avoid any darkening. Some manufacturers age the vinegar in oak barrels while some others utilize stainless steel. White balsamic vinegar is often utilized in recipes where its sweet, milder flavor and neutral color is preferred within the darker variant. In addition, white balsamic vinegar has a more pungent aftertaste.

Balsamic cremes and glazes, on the other hand, are a rather new development on the balsamic scene. These products are (generally speaking) low-cost alternatives to the viscosity you would just get from a very-expensive, aged balsamic.

Young vinegar is sweetened, thickened and colored to resemble the taste and depth of a vinegar that is at least 25 years old. It is a viable alternative in bistro cuisine recipes, but you would likely never find it in any pantry of a 3-star restaurant.