Balsamic vinegar has a distinct depth of flavor that is both sweet and a bit astringent. It’s not as strong as regular vinegar, and it has deep caramel-y, molasses-like notes that pair it very well with most foods. Think chocolate, molasses, and vaguely fruity notes with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
When adding balsamic vinegar you won’t have that strong dash of vinegar, it’s much milder than regular vinegar. It’s also thicker than regular vinegar, due to the aging process and caramelization it undergoes.
In Italy really good balsamic is sometimes drunk as a palette cleanser, aperitif or digestif, especially on special occasions such as weddings. The name “balsamic” connotes the vinegar’s original use as a tonic, or “balm.”
Balsamic vinegar has been produced in and around its birthplace, the city of Modena, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, for nearly a thousand years. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, balsam refers to “an aromatic and usually oily and resinous substance” from plants that can be used to make a balm, and the first written reference of this term to vinegar appeared in 1747 in a register in the winery of the Duke of Este in Modena.
In 1046, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was given a silver bottle containing a celebrated vinegar while passing through a town on his way to his coronation. The record of this visit is thought to be the first written reference to balsamic vinegar, a condiment once known only to those in the Emilia-Romagna region of what is now modern Italy, and produced only in the provinces of Reggio Emilia —where Henry III was visiting —and neighboring Modena.
This is a wine-producing area, specializing in trebbiano (white) and lambrusco (red) grape varieties, and it was the tradition to set aside some of the must—the unfermented juice of grapes—to make a very special vinegar. The way it was made centuries ago is still pretty much the way traditional balsamic vinegar is made today.
The juice is slowly cooked down to the consistency of a syrup, concentrating its flavors and aromas, and darkening its color. It is then cooled and transferred to wooden barrels, where the cooked must undergoes a slow fermentation, creating alcohol which, in turn, is attacked by acetic bacteria, turning the wine into vinegar. This is followed by a very lengthy aging process of 12 years or more. During this time, as the liquid in the barrel evaporates, the contents are transferred to smaller and smaller barrels of different types of wood, such as chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper. After that, the vinegar may be aged for an additional period of time before bottling. Needless to say, all these procedures have a significant impact on the final product.
3 Types of Balsamic
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia” or “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.” Vinegar labeled with these names must be produced in either the regions of Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy. The process by which these traditional vinegars are made takes years and produces an incredibly thick, glossy, flavorful product. Only Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes are used to make this type of balsamic vinegar. The juice from these grapes is aged in wooden barrels for 12 to 18 years to develop its unique flavor. Traditional balsamic vinegar is the highest grade available and carry the largest price tag.
Condiment Grade Balsamic
Condiment Grade Balsamic Vinegar “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI,” “condimento balsamico,” “salsa balsamica,” or “salsa di mosto cotto.” These vinegars provide a depth of flavor similar to traditional balsamic vinegar but at a more reasonable price tag.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, but produced outside of that region may be labeled as a condiment grade balsamic vinegar. Vinegars that are made by the traditional standards and within the designated regions of Italy, but aged for fewer than 12 years are also considered condiment grade.
Commercial Grade Balsamic
Commercial grade balsamic vinegars are mass produced and aged for a minimum amount of time, if at all. These vinegars are made from wine vinegar and often have caramel coloring, thickeners, and flavor added. Commercial grade balsamic vinegar may be labeled simply as “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” if they are, in fact, produced in that region.
Call for Mass Production
The first balsamic vinegars sold in the US arrived courtesy of one Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma, in 1977. They were presumably the real deal, but that was the start of a boom for imported balsamic from Modena that would soon see demand outstrip supply.
This surge in popularity led to a rise in derivative products, which in turn led to the introduction of a protected designation for true traditional balsamic vinegar. But the D.O.P. designation only protects the very best; it doesn’t offer any level of distinction among mass market balsamics.
That’s where the I.G.P. designation comes in. Introduced by the European Union in 2009, I.G.P. guarantees that the product is made from grape varietals typical of Modena (Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana. Lambrusco, Montuni, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano), though the grapes can be from anywhere and only need to be processed in Modena. This is the only way balsamic vinegar of Modena can be produced in volumes sufficient to meet demand.
The vinegar is cooked in pressurized vats and aged for at least two months in large wooden barrels. There is no fermentation stage. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena I.G.P. must contain wine vinegar to bring its acidity to at least 6%, and can contain up to 50% wine vinegar, often both aged and young. It may contain thickening agents, caramel, or other colorants to make it more like real balsamic. The balance of ingredients can create balsamic vinegars as cheap as $5 or as expensive as $50.
Traditional balsamic vinegar will keep indefinitely, but store in a cool dark place to best preserve the complexity of its flavors, and keep away from other pungent ingredients. Balsamic vinegar will not continue to mature in the bottle. As with traditional balsamic, condimento will last forever but should be kept away from strong flavors and strong light. The main problem with storing balsamic is the sunlight. It comes in these small, dark bottles that filter out sunlight, but they can’t protect it 100%. The coloring is there to protect from accidental exposure, not continuous exposure.