By Chef Joseph Lowery
Ancient indeed is the history of vinegar. Over the centuries, vinegars have been employed for culinary, health, body care and even cleaning purposes. We derive our word vinegar from the French “Vin Aigre” meaning sour wine, although all vinegars are not necessarily made from wine. Most are made from some fermented product with the exception being the famed balsamic vinegars.
Understanding the difference
To understand the difference between vinegars in general and balsamic vinegars specifically, it is helpful to know a few facts. The more readily available vinegars on the market today include:
- Distilled White Vinegar- usually made from distilled grain alcohol, it is sharply acidic, sour and unpleasant. Although commonly used in pickle making, its harsh flavor is not recommended in cooking.
- Apple Cider Vinegar- produced from fermented apple cider has a mild apple flavor and is appropriate to use where a low acidity is desired.
- Malt or Beer Vinegar- like beer, ale and scotch, this vinegar is made from malted barley and is a favorite in Britain, traditionally served with Fish and Chips.
- Berry and Fruit Vinegars- are sweet, mild and delicate… delicious with fruit dishes and in salad dressings.
- Herb Vinegar- is actually selected vinegar that has been infused with an herb or an assortment of herbs. Probably the best known is Tarragon Vinegar, often used to make Béarnaise sauce.
- Honey Vinegar- historically speaking this is the most ancient of vinegars dating back to the Egyptians. In addition to the purported healthful properties, this vinegar is known for its very complex aroma. It is used in cooking and sometimes, beverages.
- Rice Vinegar- is common ingredient in Chinese, Japanese and other Asian cuisines. Very low acidity makes this vinegar one of the mildest of all varieties.
- Wine Vinegar- made with red wine, Sherry, white wine or Champagne, the flavor profiles can range from potent and pungent to light and mild. These are familiar ingredients in Vinaigrettes and many other cooking uses.
“Rock Star” status
Balsamic Vinegars—the unique and noble “Gold Standard” of Italy—is produced in the regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia. It has only been during the last three decades that American cooks have discovered balsamic vinegar and elevated it to “rock star” status in the culinary world.
In Italy, balsamic vinegar has been prized for centuries. In medieval times, it was valued for its healing properties and at one time was even believed to be a cure for the plague. For a thousand years, wealthy Italian families have produced balsamic vinegar for their own use, but it has only been available commercially for the last 40 years or so.
Fine aged balsamic vinegars were considered treasured family heirlooms, often as part of a bride’s dowry. Considered “liquid gold,” small kegs of balsamic vinegar could be slowly consumed or even sold if economic conditions warranted. On special occasions, royalty and only the most fortunate guests might receive balsamic vinegar as a gift.
No traditional balsamic vinegar ever really starts from “scratch”
To produce fine balsamic vinegar, the must, which is unfermented juice from whole grapes (usuallyTrebbiano and/or Lambrusco), including the skins, seeds and stems is cooked and reduced to dark syrup.
This syrup is then placed in a barrel containing a small amount of an earlier batch of balsamic vinegar, and then aged in a progression of smaller and smaller wooden barrels or kegs.
When vinegar is drawn from the smallest and oldest of the lot, this barrel is topped up with vinegar drawn from the next smallest and so forth, until the largest barrel receives the new batch of the cooked must. None of the barrels or casks is ever fully emptied. So, there is no such thing as a vintage because no traditional balsamic vinegar ever really starts from “scratch.” These barrels are usually made from oak, chestnut, cherry wood, ash, mulberry, acacia and juniper, with each wood adding its own character and nuances. The collection of these barrels is referred to as a “batteria.”
In Reggio Emilia, new barrels must first be certified by the Consorzio fra Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizione di Reggio Emilia. This is also the group that is responsible for the evaluation and classification of the vinegars themselves. Upon approval, the barrels are branded with a special seal and then seasoned through a process that can take two years. Old Balsamico barrels are highly treasured and revered.
Prized and priced
The batteria of barrels is stored in maturation rooms in attics to benefit from hot summers and cold winters, which allow for the different stages of development. Holes in the tops of the barrels are covered with cotton cloths and tiles of porous stones. As the vinegar ages it naturally reduces by evaporation through the barrels, which in turn thickens and concentrates the flavor and increases complexity. The longer the vinegar ages, the more highly it is prized and priced.
Evaluating and certifying
When evaluating and certifying the quality of “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar) the tasters of the consortium are responding primarily to the taste, balance and other characteristics, not the age. However, age classifications for marketing purposes do exist and are divided into the following categories starting with the oldest and grandest:
- “Extra Vecchio” (extra old) Balsamico is 25 year old Traditional Balsamic produced in Modena. “Oro” (Gold Label) Traditional Balsamic is the corresponding product from Reggio Emilia.
- “Invecchio” (old) Balsamic is 18 year Traditional Balsamic from Modena, while in Reggio Emilia it is known as “Argento” (Silver Label).
- “Affinato” is the 12 year Traditional Balsamic of Modena and the Reggio Emilia version is the “Aragosta” (Red/Orange/Salmon Label).
“Balsamico Condimento” (Condiment). Strictly speaking, these vinegars are not authentic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar and cannot be labeled as such. However, some of the best producers choose to sell their products that cannot pass the Consortium regulations as “Condimento.”
Although they employ similar techniques, the various products in the market place have different characteristics regarding acidity, density, color and overall quality. “Condimentos” are not as complex or “deep” as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, but can still taste quite good. This having been said, there are some fine vinegars at reasonable prices among this style.
- “Aceto Balsamico di Modena" (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), these are various vinegars that have only one thing in common- their name. Currently, anyone anywhere can legally produce Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. They can range from very sweet to pungent and savory. The better quality (and more expensive) are aged at least three years while the “cheapies” are aged only a few months in stainless steel tanks and artificially sweetened and thickened. These vinegars far outsell the real thing and can be good for everyday use. BUYER BEWARE… there is plenty of fake balsamic vinegar on the market. “Aceto Balsamico di Modena” (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), is not the same as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar)
- Generic Balsamic Vinegar. The traditional methods are used to make these vinegars, but they are produced using must grown in the areas where they are produced- (outside the regions of Modena or Reggio Emilia).
- “Balsamela” (Country Style Apple Balsamic). “Balsamela” is a highly appreciated vinegar utilizing traditional techniques but using Vignola apples instead of grapes.
- White Balsamic Vinegar. Although the product is made in Modena, the difference is in the color, taste and production process. The must is prepared first by pressure cooking and then aging for 1 year in uncharred barrels. In the cooking process caramelization is avoided and the aging technique keeps the vinegar lighter in color and flavor, making it an excellent accompaniment to fish.
The key to any well made vinegar is balance. All vinegars will display an expected acidity of course, but it should be an acidity that is balance with the fruit and other flavors.
Tasting the most famous vinegar in the world, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is not unlike tasting wine. The difference being that you only taste a small amount of balsamic vinegar, not drinking an entire glass.
In fact traditionally, this legendary vinegar is tasted by pouring a drop on the back of the hand and then tasting directly. Tasting from small spoons works just fine, as well.
Good balsamic vinegar should be a rich, dark brown, syrupy like substance with a distinctly complex, acid fragrance. The flavor should be sweet and sour in perfect proportion. On the palate it should be full, round and luxurious with a variety of nuances.
Browse Avanti Savoia's selection of traditional balsamic vinegar...