What is Balsamic Vinegar?

Gold top tradizionale balsamico, aka "liquid gold"
Gold top tradizionale balsamico, aka "liquid gold"

I love home-made salad dressing, not only does it taste much better than store bought dressing, but you can control what goes into it. The story of balsamic vinegar and me goes back quite a few years now. I stumbled upon a delicious salad at one of my favorite restaurants, it was a field greens with the most unusual cranberry balsamic dressing I'd ever had. It was topped off with pecans and dried cranberries, giving it the perfect balance of sweet and sour. Of course, I attempted to find out what was in the dressing specifically, but it seemed they weren't particularly keen on sharing. So, I with experimentation, I would figure it out myself. HA! After some trial and error, I had created the dressing, and frankly, I thought it was even better than the highly coveted restaurant's version. I once made this salad for the annual Thanksgiving dinner we share at our best friend's house. They loved and adored it, asked me to make it year after year, so a new tradition was born.

These friends of ours love to travel and had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Europe a few years back. While in Italy, they had an ingenious idea, they decided to buy me some real balsamic vinegar, called: extra-vecchio tradizionale aceto balsamico (extra old traditional balsamic vinegar). Now, I did know not all balsamic vinegars are made alike, and I made a concerted effort to avoid the cheap commercial stuff. I'd heard of the infamous tradizionale balsamics of Moderna, and just kept waiting to win the lottery so I could buy a bottle. Some can cost upwards of $300! Anyway, this was a very special gift from a very special friend, and I learned quite a bit about balsamic vinegar in the process.

Trebbiano Grapes
Trebbiano Grapes

A Little History on Balsamic Vinegar

Until the 1970s most Americans had never even heard of true balsamic vinegar “aceto tradizionale balsamico” as it's called in Italy. It was an artisan product that was relatively unknown outside of Italy itself. According to Italian law, these traditional vinegars can only be produced in the northern provinces of Reggio Emilia or Moderna, as these areas have the government protection of denomination designation. Each province has experts who assist in the quality control of these two balsamics before it's allowed to be sealed in their official 3 ounce bottles. 

For hundreds of years, traditional balsamic vinegar has been made from specific white grapes called Trebbiano. First the grapes are mashed, then cooked very slowly over an open flame until they're become a must. The must is basically a grape concentrate that's been boiled down to about 30% of the original volume of grapes. The must is then placed in a large wooden barrel (called a “batteria”) where it begins its mellowing and maturation process, where it ferments and turns into vinegar. The vinegar is then passed from barrel to barrel, in a sequential fashion from largest first, to smallest last. These barrels are made out of a variety of woods, most commonly ash, cherry, oak, juniper, chestnut and mulberry. To be given the title of “tradizionale balsamico”, the vinegar must be transferred from barrel to barrel for at least 12 years, an “extra vecchio” for a minimum of 25 years.


Batteria

Characteristics of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar “Tradizionale Balsamico”

Due to its price and unique flavor, tradizionale balsamico is generally used in different ways from commercially produced balsamic vinegar. In fact, it's often used as a condiment, rather than a cooking ingredient. It not only tastes different from the mass produced kind, but its consistency is completely different. Vinegar that's been aged for a long time is thicker and has a stronger, sweeter flavor with a hint of wood from the barrels. It has a subtle mixing of the flavors,of caramel, raisins, honey and figs. It will coat a spoon like a viscous syrup would. While one would never consider consuming straight spoonfuls of the grocery store variety, I must admit this stuff is worthy of a few straight shots!

Condimento Grade Balsamic Vinegar (condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto)

For my fancy Thanksgiving salad dressing, I always purchased Condimento Balsamico, a middle of the road option in terms of quality. I felt they were worth it since the balsamic vinegar is the star of the show. Some condimento is made similarly to tradizionale, they're started with must and made with a batteria, but not aged as long as the traditional ones are. Others are made with regular balsamic vinegar mixed with reduced grape juice in a variety of proportions. Condimentos don't have to abide by the consortium regulations and supervision, however. As such, they can be made outside of the Modeno and Regio Emilia provinces. They range in quality, but from personal experience, the ones made by tradizionale producers are excellent.

Commercial or Industrial Balsamic Vinegars

With no laws in the United States about balsamics, any vinegar can be labeled “Modena Balsamic Vinegar” even if it's made in Jersey. You know the kind, they're ubiquitous... They can cost as little as a few bucks and are found in any and every grocery store. Before I hit the jackpot with my fancy Italian balsamic vinegar, I made a concerted effort to purchase higher quality vinegar. I knew there was a difference, so I wound up sampling a lot of different varieties in different price ranges. I thought it best to look for ones that had aged for at least a few years and that were started with must.

Commercial grade balsamic vinegars have a ranking scale, from 0 grape leaves, to 4 grape leaves. Basically, a higher ranking (more leaves) means there's a higher ratio of grape must to red wine. Balsamic vinegars with 0 grape leaves are very high in red wine vinegar with only a splash of the must. Ones with 4 grape leaves has a lot more must with the accompanying sweet flavor and syrupy texture.

Condimento Grade Balsamic Vinegar (condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto)

For my fancy Thanksgiving salad dressing, I always purchased Condimento Balsamico, a middle of the road option in terms of quality. I felt they were worth it since the balsamic vinegar is the star of the show. Some condimento is made similarly to tradizionale, they're started with must and made with a batteria, but not aged as long as the traditional ones are. Others are made with regular balsamic vinegar mixed with reduced grape juice in a variety of proportions. Condimentos don't have to abide by the consortium regulations and supervision, however. As such, they can be made outside of the Modeno and Regio Emilia provinces. They range in quality, but from personal experience, the ones made by tradizionale producers are excellent.

The good stuff...
The good stuff...

Balsamic Vinegar Reduction

My Cranberry Balsamic Dressing Con Tradizionale Balsamico

My mother-in-law taught me a trick back in the 90's to greatly improve commercial balsamic vinegar. In order to achieve the syrupy texture and complex flavor of a commercial balsamic, she clued me into the indispensable trick of simmering it, adding sugar and a variety of seasonings. I simply pour in the vinegar and make a mental note how high it begins in the pan, then I simmer it until it's reduced by almost half. It does wonders for the flavor, ridding it of the undesirable vinegar taste inherent in these inferior balsamics. So, when I received my “new and improved Modena” I was pleased I wouldn't have to bother with the reduction process for a while.

Okay, so we we re all chomping at the bit to try my famous salad dressing that fall after my friends came back with my Italian present. We knew it was going to blow my old version away, we had visions of this dressing winning all kinds of culinary awards. I gleefully served out each individual plate of salad, drizzled it ever so carefully with my soon to be world famous dressing, sprinkled each plate with just the perfect amount of dried cranberries and pecans, and brought my eagerly anticipated works of art to the table. My best friend took the first bite, while the butterflies in my stomach reached an all time high. She chewed, she wiped her mouth, she chewed some more, and I felt like a student on Hell's Kitchen waiting for her approval. Her response? “It's good.” I said: “How good?” She said: “Just as good as it always is.” Huh? I was convinced something had gone horribly awry with her taste buds, so I immediately dismissed her appraisal. But, one by one, right down the line everyone said it tasted “the same”. I finally tried it for myself, still in deep denial, and there was no way around it, it wasn't any better. WHAT the????

Tradizionale balsamico is wonderful with frest strawberries
Tradizionale balsamico is wonderful with frest strawberries

Inexpensive Lessons I've Learned

Naturally, I've run out of my Italian balsamic vinegar. For the most part, I used it as a topping for a variety of fruits and meats. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy it, you can pretty much drink it like a lacquer if you so desired, it was that good straight. But, if you're an average Joe that hasn't either inherited a hefty estate from your late, great Uncle Harry or you've hit the Powerball jackpot, then in my opinion it's not worth the lofty price tag. Granted, some of the true, traditional Italian balsamic vinegars don't cost an arm and a leg, but maybe an arm at $100 per bottle, if you're lucky. Be suspicious if it costs any less than that. As I mentioned, I use balsamic vinegar... a lot. So, as I mentioned, I've experimented with a wide variety of balsamics and have come to some conclusions.

  • The ones with artificial colors and flavors are inferior. Hear me now, only choose the ones that have been started from must. Check your labels and look for any artificial anything. The bad news is not all labels will list the ingredients, it's a sneaky, but perfectly legal practice. Italian law dictates that the label “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” is in and of itself and ingredient, therefore, no further ingredients need to be listed.

  • The older, the better isn't necessarily true. Some of my favorite commercial balsamics have only aged one year.

  • When in doubt, look for at least a two grape leaf ranking for commercial balsamic vinegars. There are, however some perfectly good choices with less than the two leaves, but you're gambling here.

  • If you're using balsamic vinegar in a pan sauce it makes very little difference how high the quality of your vinegar is. Just use the commercial grade. Most of the characteristic flavor and desired aroma is simply cooked away. This doesn't mean you should forsake checking labels, you always need to make sure they're started with must, and have no artificial ingredients, if possible.

  • Commercial grade balsamic vinegar is the way to go for salads. Again, just reduce it to about half its original volume.

  • Use condimento for drizzling on fresh tomatoes, meats, cheeses and fruits. It's not going to break the bank, but it's just expensive enough to not cook with or bury into sauces or dressings.

  • If you're lucky enough to get the real McCoy, it works best uncooked and used as a topping for a variety of foods. Don't mess with it. Reserve it for special occasions and special dishes. It is fantastic drizzled on fruits, particularly strawberries. It's also marvelous on a wide variety of meats.

A Few Personal Recommendations

For the Commercial Kind

  • Fini Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, 3 leaf
  • Fiorucci Riserva Balsamic Vinegar, Made in Moderna
  • Masserie di Sant' Eramo Balsamic Vinegar

Condimentos

  • The Academia Barilla Condimento Balsamico, at about $42 for 8.5 ounces

Tradizionale Aceto Balsamico

  • Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena Extravecchio

Comments 6 comments

Veronica Allen profile image

Veronica Allen 6 years ago from Georgia

I have never tried balsamic vinegar, but I must say after all this great information, I will have to give it a try. I like the tip to look for at least a two grape leaf ranking -that keeps it nice and simple for me.

Great job!


Paige Masters profile image

Paige Masters 6 years ago Author

You have to try it, Veronica. The leaf ranking does make it easier... It's really good with fresh tomatoes. Thanks for the comment!


Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas

Very nicely done Paige. Reducing the commercial vinegar is a great tip. If it's decent enough vinegar it doesn't even need sugar. Congrats on being picked for Week 1 of the contest! Ciao.


Paige Masters profile image

Paige Masters 6 years ago Author

Thanks so much, Jai! Appreciate your visit and comment.


OnlineHub profile image

OnlineHub 6 years ago from Fresno, CA, USA

Excellent information about Balsamic Vinegar. I like reading your article and thanks for sharing it. 5* plus recommendation!


ekeisman profile image

ekeisman 5 years ago

Great hub. I adore balsamic vinegar! It's often so expensive, but when I have it, I use it for homemade salad dressings, and...dip strawberries in it, then a little confectioner sugar...delicious! Like you say - you could just drink the good stuff straight! Thanks for all the info.

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