Special Focus: Balsamic Vinegar

The production of balsamic vinegar, or balsamico meaning “balsam-like” or “curative,” is a 1000-year-old process similar to winemaking. Authentic balsamic is produced only in its region of origin—Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy—and must adhere to strict standards. In the U.S., balsamic vinegar does not require a standard of identity, and the resulting product can range from colored vinegar water to versions resembling the classic dark, complex vinegar.

“Any balsamic vinegar can be labeled ‘balsamic de Modena,’ but look for products with the IGP or ‘protected geographic indication’ symbol, explains Kim Sayid of Academia Barilla. “These are made in the traditional way with a high percentage of must [concentrated grape juice].” Academia Barilla offers several products of various ages:

•Balsamic Vinegar from Modena is also known as commercial balsamic. For this type, Barilla ages grape must in oak barrels for three years, but many commercial-grade balsamics are aged for a minimum of 60 days. The liquid is then blended with red wine vinegar and bottled. “If you’re just cooking the vinegar down, a 60-day product will work fine,” says Sayid. It’s also suitable for salad dressings and marinades. Suggested uses for the three-year old product include drizzling on cheeses and finishing desserts.

•8-year old Balsamic Vinegar from Modena is aged in very small barrels or “barriques.” This technique imparts more wood flavor into the vinegar to produce a more complex product; no red wine vinegar is added. This product—a bridge between commercial and traditional balsamic—works well in cocktails, risotto, pasta and as an enhancer for grilled chicken or fish.

•Traditional Balsamic or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is aged longer to create an extremely concentrated, sweeter vinegar that is most often used as a condiment to drizzle over grilled meats, Parmigiano-Reggiano, gelato or chocolate desserts. Academia Barilla produces two types: Affinato, which is aged a minimum of 12 years, and Extra Vecchio, aged at least 25 years.

The tradizionale receives its ranking due to the standards mandated by the Consortium of Producers of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, an association that oversees everything from harvesting grapes to aging and bottling. Each vat is aged in barrels of at least five types of specified wood. Only about 3,000 gallons are produced each year, making for an artisanal product that can be pretty pricey.

Flavored balsamic vinegars are also gaining in popularity; varieties such as fig, honey and chili pepper are available. Balsamic glazes are another option if decorating the plate or glazing a roast are the goals. Neither of these products are true balsamic vinegars.

To evaluate a balsamic vinegar for quality, first check the color and viscosity, It should be dark—almost brown, notes Sayid. “Red balsamic vinegar contains no must,” she adds. A viscous liquid indicates a high percentage of must. To taste the balsamic, sip it; the flavor should be a pleasing balance between sweet and sour.