What the heck is Balsamic Vinegar?

Twenty years ago, only a handful of people in the States knew of the wonders of balsamic vinegar. Nowadays, you walk into your market of choice, and there it sits, next to the red wine and cider vinegars.

Just what the heck happened during the past 20 years that made balsamic de rigeur?

Truthfully? Greedy vinegar makers are what happened. Because what is in your supermarket is most likely not traditional balsamic vinegar. Rather, it’s nothing more than ordinary wine vinegar with coloring and added sugar. Either that, or it’s unaged (most likely) grape juice vinegar, grape juice vinegar aged for 6 months to a year in stainless steel tanks (also likely), or grape juice vinegar aged for 2 to 12 years in wooden barrels (less likely).

In short, the 3 dollar to 18 dollar bottles of balsamic vinegar sold in American stores are sold at higher prices than typical vinegar, because most people think they are buying something of “gourmet status” and thus of higher quality. The truth is that a fair majority of the stuff is no better nor worse than the 2 dollar bottle of red wine vinegar.

That’s not to say that those types of vinegar taste bad. Many of them are quite palatable. But being palatable is not the same as having the taste of traditional balsamic vinegar.

So just what is traditional balsamic vinegar? It’s a condiement that was perfected in Modena Italy (in the Emilia-Romagna region, which is why I’m talking about it).It is made from the ‘must’ (unfermented juice) of mainly the Trebbiano grape. This juice is boiled down, and the reduction remaining is added with a ‘mother’ vinegar. Much in the same way sourdough bread has a lineage to previous loaves , a vinegar has lineage to previous batches of vinegar, hence the use of this ‘Mother’. A ‘Mother’ is a sludge-like substance that forms on the surface of vinegar, and is composed of various yeast and bacteria [especially mycoderma aceti] that cause fermentation in wine and cider, and turns the syrup it into acetic acid, also known as…wait for it… vinegar.

The new vinegar compound is then aged in wooden barrels,with that barrel being changed nearly every year (depending upon the companies secret vinegar making process). The wood used for the barrels is also important, as it imparts it’s taste much in the same way that it does in wine. The woods most often used for balsamic include chestnut, ash tree, cherry, mulberry, juniper and oak.

Then the vinegar is aged for years, at least 12 of them. Anything less than that is not “officially” traditonal balsamic vinegar. The longer the vinegar ages, the more it changes. Every year in a barrel, the more moisture is removed from the vinegar. Thus, older vinegars are thicker, viscous in nature, and often syrupy. This also leaves the vinegar much sweeter than other vinegars. Where regular supermarket vinegars would never lend themselves to drinking, older balsamics are sweet enough that they are often tasted by themselves.

The end result of traditional balsamic is a dark brown, sweetened syrup with a slight vinegary kick to it. It is said that it goes well on gelato and strawberries. It is also vairly expensive here in the States. I purchased an 18 year old bottle of balsamic that ran me $40. I was eyeing a 22 year old bottle that cost 3 times as much. Which is one of the reasons why you don’t see traditional balsamic in the surpermarket. Very rarely are average shoppers going to pay 40 bucks for a condiment.

So yeah, you can buy your supermaket brand if you wish. But unless it’s…

  • …made with a must
  • …aged in wooden barrels for over 12 years
  • …and thicker and sweeter than most other vinegars

…chances are good that you aren’t having the real thing.

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