LET'S TALK BALSAMIC
This blog gives you all the information you need to sure you are fully armed before you go vinegar shopping.
Have you ever wondered how it can be that a bottle of balsamic vinegar can sell for as much as £1000 or as cheaply as £2?
The answer, of course, is that there isn’t just one balsamic vinegar, but understanding the different types requires a bit of homework.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Let’s start with the really expensive stuff. Italian families consume Aceto Balsamico Traditionale quite literally by the drop. This luxurious delicacy is drizzled sparingly on salads, chunks of Parmesan, risotto, gelato and meats. Traditional balsamic is not a cooking ingredient — heating it will kill its distinctive bouquet — and it is wasted as a salad dressing ingredient.
The vinegar is made by boiling late-harvested white grapes – usually Lambrusco or Trebbiano varieties – to produce concentrated grape must. The must is left to ferment naturally for up to three weeks, and then matured and further concentrated in a ‘batteria’ or five or more successively smaller aging barrels. These barrels are made of different woods so that the vinegar can take on the complex flavours of the casks. As it ages, anywhere from ten to 25 years, the vinegar becomes more concentrated and richer in flavour.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is always sold in wax-sealed 100ml bottles and labelled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale with a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) stamp. Only two provinces in Italy – Modena and Reggio Emilia – are designated origins for the production of this vinegar. Therefore Traditional Balsamic Vinegar will either be labelled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO or Aceto Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia PDO.
Balsamic vinegar of Modena
As traditional balsamic vinegar is too extravagant for anything other than occasional use, Italy’s vinegar producers have come up with an everyday version that goes under the name of ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena’.
This more affordable balsamic vinegar has a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) designation, which guarantees that the product is made from grape varietals typical of Modena (Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana. Lambrusco, Montuni, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano), though the grapes can be from anywhere and only need to be processed in Modena.
It is far quicker to produce than a traditional balsamic, as there is no fermentation of the must and it isn’t aged for as long. The same method is used to create the cooked grape must, but then the must is blended with wine vinegar to bring its acidity up to at least 6%. It is then aged in wooden barrels and the length of time it is left in the barrels determines its identity – it can only be classed as ‘aged’ if it has been in the wooden barrels for more than three years; less than that and it can only be classed as ‘matured’. Legally it has to be matured for at least 60 days, but the general rule of thumb is that the younger it is, the less you pay.
The key to a good balsamic vinegar of Modena PGI is the balance of ingredients. This type of balsamic can contain up to 50% wine vinegar, but generally, the higher the grape must content, the better the balsamic. However, this is not an entirely reliable measure of quality as it does depend on the concentration of the grape must. In addition, some balsamics are ‘bulked up’ with other, cheaper ingredients to give the impression of a higher quality product. They may, for example, contain thickening agents, caramel colouring and syrups to make them look like a richer, more luxurious balsamic. The best balsamic vinegars of Modena will only have two ingredients on the list – grape must and wine vinegar – and in that order.
Glaze with balsamic
In recent years, the popularity of balsamic glaze has soared, as home cooks seek to emulate restaurant styling. Decorating food with balsamic glaze is a really easy way of making dishes aesthetically attractive.
But what is actually in balsamic glaze? Made with grape must, PGI balsamic vinegar, wine vinegar and a thickener (modified starch or xanthan gum), balsamic glaze is a sweet, thick syrup with an acidity of around 3-3.5%. Unlike its PDO and PGI counterparts, balsamic glaze hasn’t any protection of origin. It can be made anywhere in the world, Nor does it have to be aged; balsamic glaze is not even one day old and is never put in wooden casks or barrels.
All of this means that the production parameters and content are unregulated and down to the individual producer’s discretion.
There are, however, some indicators of quality: grape must should be the first ingredient on the list, followed by balsamic vinegar. Although sugars, syrups and thickeners are necessary to achieve the required sweetness and slow-flowing viscosity, they should not be high up the list. Also, the more concentrated the grape must, the higher quality the glaze. Some producers will add caramel colour, but this is purely to make the glaze look darker and is not necessary for the taste and texture.
Ultimately, when using balsamic glaze it is important to remember that it is not intended as a direct alternative to balsamic vinegar; it is a fun way of lifting a dish and getting creative in the kitchen.