Italy is the place where time seems to stand still, a land still capturing the romance of previous centuries. Her language sounds like singing, while passionate hand gestures seem to tell more than the words themselves. It’s the country that gave birth to the greatest artists and architects of human history; it’s the nation that seems to carry excellence on her breath. Her kitchen brought forth delicacies and dishes that were adopted by restaurants and families all around the globe. In this southern European country, balsamic vinegar was born.
It had been hidden from the multitudes for centuries as a well-kept secret of an Italian family. But in the last decades, the flavor of this special vinegar has been leaking outside the borders of Italy and even introduced to America. Now, balsamic vinegar is a highly desired ingredient for many people who take cooking seriously. The sharp aroma of this vinegar brings out the flavor in soups, sauces and other dishes. It can even be used in combination with fruit or ice cream. Balsamic vinegar has a dark, syrup-like consistency with a mellow acidity. Its sweet-sour taste transforms an ordinary meal into a delicate dish. But its power is very dependent on which kind you’re using. You can find balsamic vinegar for less than $5 in the supermarket, but there are also bottles which cost hundreds of dollars. So how can you choose the best balsamic vinegar to cook with?
Many people say that choosing balsamic vinegar is like choosing wine. It is true in a sense, because the quality of the vinegar has a lot to do with the length of time it has aged, the origin of the grapes and the way it has been processed. Balsamic vinegar, however, is not actually considered a wine-vinegar, because the grape juice is unfermented. The main ingredient for this vinegar as a concentrated grape juice is called must. There is only one true balsamic vinegar. Only that which is processed and aged due to the traditional, Italian methods can claim this status. There are strict rules to follow in order to be called ‘aceto balsamico tradizionale’. This vinegar must be aged for a minimum of twelve years in wooden barrels, but the best, traditional balsamic vinegars are aged between 25 and 150 years. Just like with wine, as the age increases, so does the price. Some bottles of vinegar are sold for more than $500!
Although there’s only one traditional balsamic vinegar, there are many other semi-comparable varieties ranging in price and quality. The best quality is obviously the ‘Tradizionale’ which has a complex, sweet flavor, is used only as a ‘finishing condiment’ or special seasoning. It has been stated that true balsamic vinegar is aged for 12 years before it is bottled, as stated in an article about things that get better with time. Then there are high-quality vinegars that consist of grape must, just like the traditional one, but have aged less. These are often used for vinaigrettes, sauces or marinades. Some grape must vinegars have caramel added to them; these are cheaper because they have not been put through the aging process. The cheapest version of balsamic vinegar consists simply of artificial flavors. The last two can be used as all-purpose vinegar; they are thinner and have a more sweet-sour flavor.
Just like with most food products, reading the label and the list of ingredients is going to give you the best clues about quality. A high percentage of grape must is a good sign, since that should be the main ingredient. Some imitation balsamic vinegar consists of wine vinegar instead of grape must. If you were to buy this product, you could be paying way too much for nothing better than sweetened wine vinegar. The cheap balsamic vinegars – or let’s politely call them the commercial grade of our balsamic vinegar family – often have brown sugar, thickeners like corn flour, coloring or caramel added to them. If you’re looking for all-purpose vinegar, this doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as the price is in alignment with the quality.
When buying higher quality balsamic vinegars, look for the length of time it has been aged. If you desire the ‘real thing’, a special (red) seal on the bottle will tell you that it’s the aceto balsamico tradizionale. This traditional balsamic vinegar will probably not be found in your local supermarket. You’ll have better luck at a fine gourmet shop or online.
Even if you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for a bottle of vinegar, still pay attention to the companies that produce the traditional balsamic vinegars. Oftentimes, they will also produce high quality vinegar with the same ingredients as the ‘traditional’ balsamic vinegar, but not aged as long.
Whether you are using artificial, $3 balsamic vinegar as a salad dressing or you’re turning your meals into ‘haute cuisine’ with a view drops of ‘balsamico tradizionale’, you now know how to bring the rich flavor of Italian excellence into your kitchen. Buon appetito!