The Magic of Balsamic Vinegar: What It Is, How to Use It, and Why It's Important to Buy the Right Type
Balsamic vinegar was first imported commercially to the United States in 1978 by Williams-Sonoma. Soon thereafter, it was celebrated in fine restaurants and gourmet food shops, but it would be several years before it landed on supermarket shelves and in home kitchens. Now, four decades after its introduction in the U.S., balsamic vinegar is found in every grocery store and even at many fast-food drive-through windows. Even so, confusion remains about what balsamic vinegar is. That confusion undoubtedly stems from the fact that much of what is labeled "balsamic" bears no relation to the real thing. How did that happen? And with a dizzying number of varieties to choose from, what's the best way to understand and appreciate the true flavor of balsamic vinegar?
A Little History
Italians have been making balsamic vinegar since Roman times, when its primary purposes were medicinal rather than culinary. Occasionally, it was used as a sweetener, or to enhance the flavor of savory foods. Production was limited to the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in the Emilia Romagna region. The vinegar was largely kept within the region, and highly prized within it. According to Michael Harlan Turkell, author of the excellent and authoritative book Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar, balsamic was a crucial part of a young woman's dowry in the 19th century. Mothers in the Emilia Romagna began a new batch of balsamic when a daughter was born, to allow time for it to age in preparation for the eventual wedding.
Surprisingly, balsamic is not made from wine, but rather from the unfiltered juice of freshly crushed white grapes, known as must (or mosto, in Italian). The must (including the stems, skin, and seeds) is boiled down, or reduced, to a syrupy liquid, which is then aged in wooden barrels. The barrels are stored in attics rather than wine cellars, since heat creates the right atmosphere for the essential fermentation. Over time, the vinegar is transferred to a series of barrels of various woods (oak, cherry, chestnut, juniper, and others), picking up yeasts and other natural elements from the woods as it matures and mellows. It is also frequently blended with portions of older vinegars. All of these factors account for its incredible complexity of flavor. And, of course, age matters—the best vinegars are aged for several years and even decades.
Of all the descriptions I've read of true balsamic, I liked Marcella Hazan's best, in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: "The color must be deep, rich brown, with brilliant flashes of light. When you swirl the vinegar in a wine glass, it must coat the inside of the glass as would a dense, but flowing syrup, neither splotchy nor too thin. Its aroma should be intense, pleasantly penetrating. A sip of it will deliver balanced sweet and sour sensations, neither cloying nor too sharp, on a substantial and velvety body. It is never inexpensive, and it is too precious and rare ever to be put up in a container much larger than a perfume bottle."
Keep two things in mind when choosing balsamic vinegar: First, you get what you pay for, and second, mind the label. True balsamics are made within the Emilia Romagna and marked with one of two classifications: Traditional DOP (or, Tradizionale Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), which is sometimes translated as on labels as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) .
The production of DOP vinegars is strictly monitored. They must be made with grapes from the Emilia Romagna region (usually Trebbiano or Lambrusco) and aged for at least 12 years. (Anything aged for 25 years of more is considered "extra old" and given a gold label.) These traditional vinegars sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle. If you can get your hands on one, treat it accordingly—in other words, drop by drop. It's known as "liquid gold" for very good reason. Think of it as a finishing touch rather than a recipe ingredient (and never subject it to heat). Try a few drops over grilled or roasted meats, fish, or vegetables, or on a cheese plate, or tossed with fresh berries, peaches, figs, or melon. Drizzle it over sorbet, gelato, or panna cotta. You could have a spoonful as a digestive, as many Italians do.
IGP vinegars are more common, accounting for about 90% of the bottles currently produced in the region. They are more accessibly priced, but not necessarily inexpensive. Their production is monitored, but not as strictly as it is for DOP. The grapes can come from anywhere in the world, as long as they are processed in Emilia Romagna and aged for at least 60 days. Use IGP vinegar sparingly in sauces and marinades, risottos, and vegetable dishes, or in fruity or frozen desserts. Or try this trick: Mix a small amount into a dressing made with ordinary wine vinegar, which will punch up the flavor. You could toss IGP balsamic with raw onions and a pinch each of sugar and salt; let that sit for a while, then try it with grilled meat or fish.
You might also try reducing a non-DOP vinegar to concentrate its flavor. Lidia Bastianich recommends making a balsamic reduction for drizzling over meats and vegetables, or as a glaze for roasts. She combines a pint of IGP balsamic with honey and bay leaf, and then simmers it until it's a third of its original volume (for glaze) or a quarter (for a condiment). Refrigerated in an airtight container, this should keep indefinitely. This syrup to serve with chicken liver mousse is similar.
A third balsamic option is known as condimento. The production of these vinegars is not monitored by the same consortium that authenticates DOP and IGP, but that doesn't mean that they are not worth seeking out. There are interesting options, including a few artisanal varieties produced in the U.S. For the best tasting vinegars, stick with those priced at $15 and up per bottle, and pay close attention to the label, the color, and the thickness. Avoid anything with additives like sugar or caramel.
Which brings me to the last type of balsamic vinegar: supermarket varieties, for lack of a better description. Anything sold for less than $10 a bottle is likely to be a cheap imitation of true balsamic, meaning a combination of inexpensive white wine vinegar and added sugars. These are balsamic vinegars in name only, with flavors that are one note, best described as cloying.
How to Use Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic has an affinity for a number of ingredients, including aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, grilled meats, fish and vegetables, mushrooms, onions, rosemary, and fruit. Try reducing the vinegar with brown sugar for a savory sauce for pork tenderloin. This portobello burger recipe feels straight out of the 1990s, but that doesn't mean it doesn't taste just as delicious today. And Balsamic Poached Figs make an excellent addition to a cheese board. While this balsamic marinade works well with firm white fish or chicken breast. And be sure to save room for a balsamic-flavored dessert.