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Balsamic Vinegar

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Unlike most other vinegars, balsamic vinegar, also called aceto balsamico, is a perfectly tuned balance of sharp, sweet, rich and piquant. It is believed that the best balsamic vinegars hail from the Modena and Reggio-Emilia regions in Italy, where the use of barrels made from various woods give these vinegars their exceptional flavour.


Origins and History of Balsamic Vinegar


As with many complex ingredients, it is not known exactly when and how balsamic vinegar came about. The most obvious theory is that grapes which had been cooked for some other reason were set aside and forgotten about then found some time later, possibly years, during which period the mixture had gone through a natural process of acetification.


The first written documentation which refers to balsamic vinegar dates back to the 11th century, where reference is made to balsamic vinegar having been given as a present to the King of Franconia. At this time, not only was it used in cooking but it was also taken as a tonic and in medicinal concoctions.


Documents dating back to the 16th century show that by this time, balsamic vinegar was a prized ingredient reserved for the court of the Duke of Este (Italy) and the chosen few,  to whom he would give it as presents and menus from this period show that it was always present at meals. Indeed, its popularity was such that the whole of the west tower of the Ducal Palace in Modena was dedicated exclusively to its production.


By the late 17th century is was already known throughout Europe and during the 1800's mention of Balsamic Vinegar become even more common, particularly in the dowry lists of the noble families from Reggio Emilia when it was customary to augment the dowries of noble women with jars or little barrels of this highly valued commodity.



Production of Balsamic Vinegar


Although often thought of as a wine vinegar, this is incorrect as it is not made from wine, but from the unfermented juice from grapes, known as "must", which has high sugar content.


Sweet grapes, in particular Trebbiano and Spergola are pressed in the autumn and the pressings are cooked down to a dark syrup. The syrup is placed into small oak barrels containing a vinegar "mother" which begins the aging process. The Vinegar "mother" is a cluster of bacterial agents which have been left behind from previous years' productions so in theory, each barrel contains a blend of grape musts dating back to the very first production.


The barrels are traditionally kept in attics where the temperature fluctuations (hot in summer, cold in winter) aid with the evaporation and concentration and the fermentation of the resultant vinegar.


Over many years (a minimum of 12),  the mixture is transferred to smaller and smaller casks made of different woods. These small barrels always have a hole in the top. Although the holes are covered, it is not an air-tight seal thus allowing vinegar evaporation, which reduces the acetic content.


The use of these barrels made from various woods add distinct characteristics to the end product. Much like "Appellation Controllee" for wine, production of "Traditional" Balsamic vinegar is strictly controlled and certain criteria must be met for producers to be able to legally label their products " aceto balsamico tradizionale".  Amongst these criteria are the types of wood from which the casks can be made. Approved woods include oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash.


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As mentioned above, the minimum aging process is 12 years, which may seem a long time…. until you compare it to the 100 years which some balsamics are left for. The longer the aging process, the more moisture evaporates out, thereby thickening the liquid and concentrating the flavour. So the longer it is aged, the higher the quality and, of course, the price. Some balsamic vinegars can cost hundreds of pounds for just 120ml/4fl.oz.


An interesting fact is that evaporation takes place at a rate of about 10% per year, so in just 12 years, 100 litres reduces down to a mere 15 litres…. . . .good job a little goes a long way!


Balsamic Vinegar in cooking


Whilst, like many vinegars, balsamico lends itself to salad dressings such as vinaigrette, its incredible flavour has led to it being used in circumstances where one wouldn't even contemplate using other vinegars. For example, its unique flavour brings out the sweetness of fresh fruits such as peaches, raspberries and strawberries,  where it can be drizzled over neat, albeit cautiously. 


Heating  tends to reduce the acidity and sweetens balsamic vinegar so if a more mellow flavour is required, cook it. A teaspoon or so of balsamic vinegar can perk up a bland  flavoured sauce,  soup, casserole or stew. Replacing up to half the quantity of another specified vinegar with balsamic can introduce a sweeter flavour many recipes and replacing 1/4 of the lemon or lime juice in salsas gives them a lovely twist. Balsamic vinegars are not recommended for pickling.  


Balsamic vinegar can be stored indefinitely as even when the bottle has been opened, the introduction of oxygen will not cause any deterioration. It should be stored in a cool, dark place away from heat. Any sediment found in the bottle can be ignored as it is a natural by-product of the production process and is not harmful.


As with other vinegars, do not use aluminium containers for cooking and when using it to marinate ingredients, use  non-reactive container. There is no good substitute for Balsamic vinegar.



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