Balsamic Vinegar: The Power of Sour

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Vinegar gets kind of a bad rap in the food world.

For many recipes, vinegar is the counterpoint of sweet “goodness” and the “foil” of oil in dressings.

Vinegar is what great wines are when they die and what humans are said to be when they’re too sour.

Vinegar is kind of a villain in the ingredient world, and it’s far too often considered an evil necessity to balance the more pleasant ones.

However, in truth, vinegar is the silent hero, actually preserving foods and bringing dishes to life with their unmistakable power of sour.

I have my vinegar favorites. Among them are tarragon vinegar, which makes my Bearnaise Sauce even better; sherry vinegar, which I use in my hoisin-based Mongolian marinade; and balsamic vinegar, which I use in dressings, sauces, and, well, just because.

Perhaps it’s balsamic that really captivates my culinary imagination because its one of a very few vinegars (rice wine vinegar being the other notable) that is the best of both worlds. It’s sweet and sour.

“A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Ben had it right, but I think he forgot about balsamic. A more than 40-year-old balsamic vinegar is just about as sweet as honey. It’s SO sweet that it’s often used in desserts and can be a delicious topping over vanilla ice cream.

So just what is balsamic vinegar? And why is it so dark?

Balsamic vinegar is an Old World product (traditionally produced in Italy) from the Middle Ages. It’s not made as most vinegars are from aged wine but rather from freshly squeezed grape juice (Trebbiano & Lambrusco varietals), which has been reduced by simmering and then aged over years in progressively smaller wooden casks (chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash) of many wood types during its aging tenure.

The two most-notable locales (consortia) of production in Italy are Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The word “balsamic” is derived from the Latin balsamum, meaning “balsam-like,” which refers to the restorative or curative properties of the balsam sapling.

There are three types/qualities of balsamic vinegar:

  1. Authentic, traditional, artisan balsamic vinegar–the only kind that may legally be described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale in the EU.
  2. A lesser-quality, commercial-grade balsamic vinegar produced on an industrial scale and often artificially colored and sweetened.
  3. Condimento-grade products, which are often a mix of the two above.

So what does balsamic vinegar taste like?

True balsamic vinegar is rich, glossy, and deep inky brown in color. It has a complex flavor that balances the natural sweet-and-sour elements of the cooked grape juices with hints of wood from the casks. As each year of aging progresses, the sweetness and viscosity increase until a vinegar of 50 years is exceedingly syrupy, sticky and decadent. And as you can imagine, that care and aging has its costs with small, one-to-two ounce bottles costing hundreds of dollars

Thankfully, these aged vinegars are so intense and complex that little is needed to impact a dish. Drizzled over grilled steak, fish, shellfish, risotto, Parmesan cheese, or even fresh strawberries, an aged balsamic’s sweetness and lingering taste is an amazing experience.

But you don’t have to spend that kind of money to get a similar thrill. There are some great balsamic vinegars on the market that can be had for well under $10, including Academia Barillas, which we carry at Nino’s.

How is it used?

Three- to 12-year-old balsamic vinegars are commonly used in salad dressings, creamy dips, marinades, sauces or even after-dinner digestives. The dark color and tart, caramel-like taste of a traditional balsamic vinegar adds an interesting twist to otherwise common recipes.

And so, what is white balsamic vinegar? And how about the balsamic cremes and glazes that are on the shelves nowadays?

White balsamic vinegar blends white grape with white wine vinegar and is cooked at a low temperature to avoid any darkening. Some manufacturers age the vinegar in oak barrels while others use stainless steel. White balsamic vinegar is often used in recipes where its less sweet, milder flavor and neutral color is preferred over the darker version. In addition, white balsamic vinegar has a less pungent aftertaste.

Balsamic cremes and glazes, on the other hand, are a rather new development on the balsamic scene. These products are (generally speaking) low-cost alternatives to the viscosity you would only get from a very-expensive, aged balsamic.

Young vinegar is sweetened, thickened and colored to resemble the taste and thickness of a vinegar that is at least 25 years old. It is a viable alternative in bistro cuisine recipes, but you’d likely never find it in any pantry of a 3-star restaurant.

Still, it has its place.

If you haven’t yet given balsamic a try, do so. I think you’ll come back for more. And to get you started, below are a few recipes using balsamic:

What is your favorite balsamic vinegars? Share with me in the comments below!