Balsamic Vinegar

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. 

Leaving 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.

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