Balsamic vinegar has become all the rage in America, thanks to creative chefs at upscale restaurants. 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 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.
How does a lowly vinegar come to reap such praise? As far back as 900 years ago, vintners in the Modena, Italy region were making balsamic vinegar which was taken as a tonic and bestowed as a mark of favor to those of importance.
Although it is considered a wine vinegar, it is not a wine vinegar at all. It is not made from wine, but from grape pressings that have never been permitted to ferment into wine.
Sweet white Trebbiano grape pressings are boiled down to a dark syrup and 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 ONLY APPROVED WOODEN kegs made of chestnut, cherry wood, ash, mulberry, and juniper until it is ready for sale. All of these woods progressively add character to the vinegar. As it ages, moisture evaporates out, further thickening the vinegar and concentrating the flavor. The age of the vinegar is divided into young – from 3 to 5 years maturation; middle aged 6 to 12 years and the highly prized very old which is at least 12 years and up to 150 years old.
White balsamic vinegar, however, blends white grape must with white wine vinegar and is cooked at a low temperature to avoid any darkening. Some manufacturers age the vinegar in oak barrels, while other use stainless steel.
The flavors of the two are very similar, although the dark balsamic is slightly sweeter and tends to be a little more syrupy. The white has more of a clean aftertaste. The main reason one would use white balsamic, rather than regular, is mostly aesthetic. It can be used with lighter colored foods, dressings, or sauces without any discoloring. If that sort of thing matters to you.
It is this aging process that makes true balsamic vinegar from Modena in Northern Italy so expensive. Luckily, a little balsamic vinegar goes a long way.
According to the Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, March 1, 2007:
Tasted straight from the bottle, there was no contest between supermarket and traditional balsamic vinegars. Even the best of the commercial bunch – while similarly sweet, brown, and viscous – couldn’t compete with the complex, rich flavor of true balsamic vinegar. With notes of honey, fig, raisin, caramel, and wood; a smooth, lingering taste; and an aroma like fine port, traditional balsamic is good enough to sip like liqueur.