Vinegar (sour wine) is to be found in most everyone’s pantry.
There are many varieties of the stuff. It is made by exposing fermented
liquids (wine, beer, cider, rice, other grains, sugar cane or fruits) to
airborne bacteria to produce a flavored solution with about 4 to 6% acetic
acid. Its uses range from cleaning coffee pots and rinsing hair to
pickling, preparing mustards and adding an acetic bite to all manner of
foods. The most common vinegar in the U.S. is distilled white vinegar.
In my view, this bilious stuff has no culinary uses beyond its ability
to set egg whites when added to a poaching liquid. For cooking, have
on hand a bottle each of good quality white and red wine vinegar. They
work well also on salads and in salad dressings. The British like malt
vinegar on their fish and chips, while sweetened rice vinegar is very popular
in Asian cooking. Malt vinegar has never caught on here but rice
vinegar sells well in the U.S. where we have found it to be a great, stand-alone,
low cal salad dressing.
And then there is a vinegar known as Balsamic! It
has been made in Italy since the mid eighteenth century, but did not become
widely known in the U.S. until the mid 1980’s when Marcella Hazan, a writer/chef
of Italian food introduced the stuff to American diners. Since
the name balsamic is not protected, balsamic-labeled vinegars range from
awful caramel-flavored cider vinegar ($3 to $7 a bottle) to fermented white
wine actually aged in wood ($9 and up—way up). This vinegar is drinkable
by the spoonful. Indeed, it was used as a medicine in early times.
Today, balsamic vinegar adds a nice mix of sweet and sour to salads, fruits,
sauces, pastas and even desserts.
aside the fake stuff, there is a huge spread between “everyday balsamic”
and “traditional balsamic,” in cost, taste and how they are used.
The photo presents one of each. Costco’s Kirkland Balsamic Vinegar
of Modena is serviceably good, and a great bargain at $9 a liter (about
27 cents an ounce). It is dark in color, smells a little more complex
than white wine vinegar, has a hint of sweetness and is not unpleasant
on the tongue. A few weeks ago, I reduced a half cup of this vinegar to
a syrupy consistency and then drizzled it on top of bowls of gazpacho.
All to nice effect—swirls of dark liquid to please the eye and intense
but fleeting tastes of sweet and sour atop the spiced tomato soup.
I add balsamic vinegar to most recipes that call for red wine vinegar,
including most vinaigrettes.
The other bottle, Aceto Balsamica Tradizionale Di Modena cost
$95 for 100ml (that's about $28 an ounce)! This vinegar, which comes
only from Modena or Reggio Emila, Italy (the two towns are fiercely competitive),
has been aged in a battery of different wood barrels for 15 to 30 years.
It is dark brown yet clear and shiny; it is syrupy; it has a bouquet of
wood, wine and acid and a balanced taste of sweet and sour that goes on
and on and on . There is a similarity in consistency between the
balsamic reduction described above and traditional balsamic. The
traditional balsamic, however, has been reduced by evaporation over many
years. It is a finished product, so one does not cook with this stuff
or even heat it above warm. So far, since just recently The Little
Woman let me buy a bottle, we have taken a sip and confirmed that there
is really something marvelous in the bottle, drizzled a few drops on shaved
Reggiano Parmigiano as an appetizer and a few drops on vanilla ice cream
for dessert. We will use it soon to dress pears and tart apples when
they come to market.