Everyone who loves to eat has experienced a private moment of awe over some particular food or drink. Such moments refuse description—it’s impossible to reduce to words a perfectly ripe pear, the luscious synthesis of a slow-cooked braise, or vintage wine that has found its way to fullness. We’re first riveted by the utter singularity of what we sense; then we’re caught up in a complex architecture of taste. We praise the gardener, cook, or winemaker, and rightly so, but what caused our reaction can really only occur at the hands of nature, under the sealed lid of the braising pot, or by the secret alchemy of time.
The first time I tasted real aged balsamic vinegar, I felt awe. I was asked to extend my hand to form a well between my thumb and wrist. Into this crevice my host poured several heavy drops of a dark, shiny syrup as thick as molasses from a small, heavy flask. What began as a simple contrast between sweet and sour deepened into penetrating layers of flavor that mingled the aromas of wood and cooked fruit, harmoniously balanced on a taut line of acidity. From there it moved into a more evocative dimension that sent me on a goose-chase for descriptors—cedar chest, dried fruit, stewed cherries, tobacco, but also something more mysterious and hard to describe, for aged balsamic vinegar tastes of time itself.
Not everything labeled balsamic vinegar is the real thing
Before it was introduced to the American market in the late 1970s, balsamic vinegar was known only to those who might have had the chance to hear of it or taste it on their travels through the Italian cities of Modena or Reggio Emilia and the surrounding countryside. Balsamic vinegar’s roots go back to antiquity. In the Emila-Romagna, it remained a guarded family tradition that existed well outside of commerce. Today there’s hardly a supermarket that doesn’t carry on its shelves at least half a dozen brands of balsamic vinegar in a confusing variety of shapes, sizes, prices, and claims of vintage. Because there are no U.S. standards of identity for balsamic vinegar, both the imported and domestically produced ones vary widely in their approximation of the real thing.
Balsamic vinegar buying guide
The real thing
Consortium-approved, genuine balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico di Modena or di Reggio Emilia)
- Carandini, 250ml, $169
- Cavalli, 125ml, $172
- San Geminiano, 100ml, $135
- Pier Luigi Sereni, 400ml, $140
Genuine balsamic vinegar that isn’t consortium-approved (condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica, salsa di mosto cotto)
- Carandini, 250ml, $18
- Cavalli, 500ml, $33
- San Geminiano Estate, 250ml, $53
- Pier Luigi Sereni, 250ml, $20
- Vecchia Dispensa, 250ml, $19
Imitation balsamic vinegar is worlds away from the depth, intensity, or complexity of condimento- or tradizionale-grade balsamic vinegar, but it can be just fine for a weeknight vinaigrette. We tasted eleven supermarket-shelf brands and found a few that were adequate. But we had to admit: after tasting the real stuff, it was hard to go back.
- Monari VSOP, 250ml, $10.99
- Sclafani, 500ml $7.59
- Monari blue label, 250ml, $4.69
- Lina, 500ml, $2.89
An Italian treasure controlled by law
Standards adopted and administered by consortia in Modena and Reggio Emilia govern every aspect of how the vinegar is produced and aged, including bottle shape and even the foil that covers the cap. Here’s the lowdown on what you’ll find here in America, from the real article to good imitations.
True balsamic vinegar wears the name Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio Emilia on the label. Tradizionale is the key word here. It must be aged for a minimum of twelve years in wooden casks and be approved by master tasters. Small bottles of tradizionale balsamic vinegar start at about $75 and go upwards of $400.
Making balsamic vinegar
Genuine balsamic vinegar results from two fermentations: alcoholic and acetic. The first is a slow fermentation of mosto cotto (cooked grape juice); this produces alcohol and leaves some sugar. What follows is a second fermentation, in which alcohol created by the yeast is further transformed into acetic acid by aceto (or vinegar) bacteria. The residual sugar, in combination with the acetic acid, accounts for the sweet-sour makeup of balsamic vinegar. One mystery of balsamic vinegar making is the ability of yeast and vinegar bacteria, normally antagonistic to one another, to exist side by side in the developing mosto cotto. This coexistence has never been duplicated in the pure environment of a laboratory.
- The grapes, traditionally Trebbiano, as well as Lambrusco or other lesser-known varietals, are picked as ripe as weather permits. The grapes are gently crushed, pressed, and passed through a coarse sieve, the juice left to settle briefly before being transferred to a large open kettle.
- Impurities are combed away and discarded. The juice is simmered between 180° and 195°F for 24 to 42 hours. (If it gets too hot, the sugar will caramelize, blocking fermentation, and an unpleasant, scorched taste will result.)
- Reduced by roughly half, the mosto cotto is removed from the kettle, cooled, and transferred to holding tanks for fermentation and then to barrels.
- Wooden barrels are essential to balsamic vinegar’s flavor. Built in decreasing volumes from about 100 to 10 liters, the casks are arranged in a series called a battery. Most producers use a variety of woods, including oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, cherry, juniper, and sometimes other fruitwoods. Each cask is filled to about 80 percent of its capacity, and porous cloth is draped over the large, square opening. The large opening encourages evaporation, feeds the aceto bacteria which need oxygen to convert alcohol to vinegar, and guarantees a concentrated result over time. Environment is an indispensable aspect of the process. Traditionally, barrels are stored in a clean, drafty attic so the vinegar is exposed to wide fluctuations in temperature (in the Emilia-Romagna, often-torrid summers alternate with frigid winters). Balsamic vinegar is a living substance responsive to the seasons.
- Topping-up of the barrels happens once a year. In general, starting with the smallest barrel, as much vinegar as is necessary to restore the previous year’s level (which decreased through evaporation) is taken from an adjacent larger cask; the level of this cask is in turn restored by a nearby cask, and so on down the line. The largest cask is topped with the fermented, acidified mosto cotto of the new vintage. The vinegar grows denser as it ages and travels down the series, while the various woods contribute aromatic complexity. The vinegar is eventually drawn from the smallest cask in the battery.
Condimento balsamic vinegar made in the traditional method offers the best value. Producers who either live outside Modena and Reggio Emilia or who have decided to release their products without consortium approval make the second category of balsamic vinegar. Such products are often grouped under the name condimento balsamico but may bear other names such as salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto. These vinegars may be produced and aged according to the identical standards of a tradizionale outside the zone or released prior to twelve years and so do not qualify. Prices for these vinegars can be good and are the best value for the savvy consumer. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee on the bottle, but some makers of tradizionale also release condimento-grade balsamic vinegar.
In contrast to tradizionale is Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which is essentially an imitation of tradizionale. It may or may not undergo two complete fermentations, may or may not be aged in wood, and doesn’t undergo lengthy aging. Often it’s a concoction of concentrated grape juice mixed with strong vinegar and caramel coloring. Most balsamic vinegars available in America fall into this category. The packaging, which frequently includes fancy bottle shapes, sealing wax, claims of age, and images of dusty dukes, often promises more than it delivers. In fairness, not all are bad, but the best way to judge is by tasting.
Balsamic vinegar in the kitchen
My friends in Italy have taught me how to think about balsamic vinegar in the kitchen. Cooks and devotees use both condimento and tradizionale, and they often speak of three general weights of vinegar: young (three to five years old), middle-aged (six to twelve years old), and the very old (twelve years and up, sometimes as old as 150 years). For suggestions on using the different kinds, see Balsamic vinegar is best used simply. Balsamic vinegar is always a blend of the new and the old; vintage designation does not apply to balsamic vinegar the way it does to wine. If a year is marked on the bottle, it refers to the year that the barrel battery was started.
Balsamic vinegar is best used simply
High-quality balsamic vinegar, whether young or old, is best enjoyed simply. Here are some ways to try it.
- Whisk young balsamic vinegar with shallots, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss the vinaigrette with a salad of radicchio, frisée, arugula, dandelion greens, crisped pancetta, and toasted walnuts; top with thin shards of aged Parmesan.
- Spoon old balsamic vinegar over pears baked in simple syrup and accompanied by a dollop of fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese.
- Drizzle a teaspoon of extra-old balsamico over aged beef tenderloin that has been seasoned with salt and pepper and seared in a cast-iron skillet.
- Drizzle middle-aged balsamic vinegar over risotto made with leeks, white wine, turkey stock, and Parmesan just before serving.
Italians call young balsamic vinegar with pronounced acidity da insalata —vinegar to be used with oil as a salad dressing; or for pinzimonio, a vinaigrette used as a dipping sauce for raw vegetables. Each diner improvises his own pinzimonio from cruets of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper in the middle of the table. Young balsamic vinegar is also used to spike pan sauces and marinades.
Middle-aged balsamic vinegar is a more viscous vinegar. Italians call it medio-corpo, and this medium-bodied vinegar is used to add finesse to sauces and braises at the end of cooking, to give dimension to risotti and pasta dishes, and to enhance mayonnaise and other sauces.
Very old vinegar is called extra-vecchio, and affectionately, il patriarca. It possesses flavors, texture, and complexity that only very long aging can confer. Extra-vecchio ennobles just about any food deserving of its company. It would be a waste to mix very old balsamic vinegar with other ingredients or to pair it with highly spiced foods or complicated flavors. Its sapid perfume is best released on warm or at least room-temperature foods. It stands best alone and reveals its full potential used sparingly on unadorned prime cuts of beef, fish, poultry, or veal. It’s delicious on sautéed liver — foie gras and old balsamico is a glorious combination; still, you won’t be disappointed if you substitute fresh calf’s liver or even duck or chicken. Unmarinated wild game is particularly well suited to a few drops of old balsamic vinegar — loin of fresh venison, pigeon roasted pink. So is wild duck, as well as choice cuts of fish such as tuna, halibut, or sole. Certain fruits in their prime of ripeness deserve balsamic vinegar’s benediction — pears, wild strawberries, and peaches are exquisite, as are mild, creamy cheeses such as fresh ricotta. Perhaps the best way to enjoy old balsamic vinegar is to pour yourself a thimble glass full after dinner and savor it all by itself.