Grocery stores usually carry various kinds of balsamic vinegar with prices that range from moderate to very high. How do you know which to buy, and when is it worth it to splurge on an expensive bottle?
There are two types of balsamic: traditional (“tradizionale”) and commercial (“non-tradizionale”). Traditional balsamic vinegar is made in the hills near Modena and neighbouring Reggio Emilia in Italy. Its production is highly regulated, it has no added flavourings or preservatives and it is a product of controlled name and origin, like Champagne.
The production of commercial (or industrial) balsamic vinegar is not regulated; the vinegar contains additives and colour and is commonly found in supermarkets at a much lower price. Moderately priced commercial balsamic vinegars are good for everyday cooking. Many of them are essentially wine vinegar sweetened with sugars, but their sweeter, less acidic taste still makes them an excellent choice for dishes that might be overwhelmed by too much acid. I prefer them in salad dressings or to balance a spicy dish. However, there is no comparison between the real thing and the commercial imitation.
Traditional balsamic is quite different. Produced on an artisanal scale, it is superior in taste and texture to any balsamic vinegar that comes from factories. It is considered a condiment used with food, and people drink the finest and oldest as a digestif. In the past, brides were given a dowry of a small amount of the family vinegar to start creating their own.
The best balsamic from Modena is made in “acetaias” – prized heirloom cellars lined with barrels and crocks that hold the dense, dark vinegar that’s been aged for generations. It is rich, dense and syrupy.
To maintain authenticity, producers reduce white grapes, skins and seeds to syrup, and then keep the resulting “must” in wooden barrels, such as oak, chestnut and cherry (with a small quantity of older balsamic vinegar added to encourage acetification). It is aged for at least 12 years. Each year, the vinegar is moved to a smaller barrel made of a different kind of wood and allowed to evaporate a little. As you can imagine, all this adds up to an extremely high price for authentic vinegar. Look on the bottle for the codes API MO or API RE, indicating that the vinegar was made in Modena or Reggio province to confirm authenticity.
We make balsamic in Canada. At Venturi-Schulze Vineyards on Vancouver Island, I tasted the first Canadian balsamic vinegar. Made in the traditional manner, aged first in oak barrels, then moved to smaller and smaller vessels, the vinegar is aged from 12 years on. Their outstanding vinegar is available through venturischulze.com.
White balsamic starts the same way as the traditional variety, but is then pressure cooked so it does not turn brown. It has a milder taste and looks cleaner in salad dressings and light sauces than the darker variety.
To use traditional balsamic vinegar, sprinkle a few drops over burrata, add a trickle across a good vanilla ice cream, swirl a teaspoon or two into the juices of grilled steak or roast chicken, or add a dash on a strawberry, cucumber salad. After dinner, treat yourself to a small healthful glass to help with digestion.
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