Balsamic vinegar has become all the rage in America, thanks to creative chefs at upscale restaurants and gourmet food lovers. It is difficult to believe that this robust product of the vine has only come to be appreciated within the last two decades in America, when Italians have been enjoying it for centuries. The word balsamico means “balsam-like” in the sense of “restorative” or “curative”. Today’s widely popular Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) is the kind commonly used for salad dressing together with oil. The rich, slightly sweet flavor of balsamic vinegar readily lends itself to vinaigrette dressings, gourmet sauces, and brings out the sweetness of fresh fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, and peaches.
Sweet white Trebbiano grape pressings are boiled down to a dark syrup; then aged under rigid restrictions. The syrup is placed into oaken kegs, along with a vinegar “mother,” and begins the aging process. Over the years it graduates to smaller and smaller kegs made of chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper until it is ready for sale. All of these woods progressively add flavor character to the vinegar. As it ages, moisture evaporates out, further thickening the vinegar and concentrating the flavor. Some balsamic vinegar has been aged for over 100 years. It is this aging process that makes true balsamic vinegar from Modena in Northern Italy so expensive. If you want the real thing, be sure it is labeled aceto balsamico tradizionale, meaning it has been processed and aged due to traditional methods in Modena, Italy. The price will generally dictate the quality, so remember, you get what you pay for. Some cheaper brands use sulfites added as a preservative, so if you are allergic, be extra careful to read the label.
Less than 3,000 gallons of genuine balsamico are released each year. It is so highly prized that it is considered disgraceful to cook with it. Rather, connoisseurs profess that genuine balsamico should be enjoyed in its virgin form, untouched by heat, much like a fine aged whiskey. As little as a half teaspoon of this expensive aged vinegar is enough to give flavor to a vinaigrette dressing to serve four. Luckily, there are less expensive balsamic vinegars available for home cooks. A selection of imported Italian balsamic vinegar, aged for less than twelve years, can be had for under $30 and is suitable for vinaigrettes, sauces, or marinades. As the age decreases, so does the price, but many new products use carmelization and coloring in cheap balsamic vinegars.
Since the flavor is so intense, most recipes calling for balsamic vinegar use 1/4 cup or much less, enabling the cook to stretch that pint a long way. Overuse of balsamic vinegar can actually ruin a dish, so use it sparingly when experimenting.
The good thing is that balsamic vinegar can be stored indefinitely. Once you open the bottle, oxygen is not a problem and will not cause deterioration. Store it in a cool, dark place away from heat. You may notice sediment in the bottle. This is a natural by-product of the process and is not harmful.
At a minimum, the aging process can take up to twelve years for true balsamic vinegar which is legally labeled aceto balsamico tradizionale. The longer it is permitted to age, the higher the quality and price. Indeed, some balsamic vinegar, depending on age, can cost hundreds of dollars for a mere half cup!
When using balsamic vinegar, do not use aluminum pots or containers. The pan or marinating container should be non-reactive.
Balsamic vinegars are not recommended for pickling or herb infusion purposes.
Check the label if you are allergic to sulfites. Not all balsamic vinegars have sulfites, but many less expensive choices do.
Heat sweetens balsamic vinegar and boils out acidity. If you want to mellow out the flavor, heat it. If not, use it without heat or add at the very end of the cooking process.
A teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar can wake up the flavor in a bland soup, stew, or sauce.
If you must, substitute sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar for balsamico. It won’t be the same, but it will give you a hint on how good it could be if you used balsamic vinegar.
A sprinkle of balsamic vinegar on fresh sliced strawberries or raspberries really brings out the flavor of the fruit and will have you addicted