What You Should Know About Balsamic Vinegar

It seems that in the last 10 years or so, balsamic vinegar has become more of a ‘thing’ on the culinary stage.

I’ve noticed this because we are getting more queries about it in our shop. Questions like, what is the difference between balsamic vinegar and other wine vinegars? Are there different types of balsamic vinegar? And – which one do I use when cooking?

In the light of these questions, I want to use this blog post to answer some of those questions. You’ll be surprised to learn how much more there is to balsamic vinegar.

How do I know about it? Well, as we have been importing balsamic vinegars from Italy for many years, it my business to know what we’re stocking on the shelves.

What is Balsamic Vinegar?

Basically, the best balsamic vinegar is a reduction of unfermented grape juice (called grape must), which is cooked down and then aged. It has been produced in and around its birthplace, the city of Modena, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, for nearly a thousand years.

Traditionally, wine makers used to set aside some of the grape must, to make a very special vinegar. The way it was made centuries ago is still pretty much the way traditional balsamic vinegar is made today.

What About Other Types of Vinegar?

You might well have a favourite type of vinegar in your kitchen or that you use for your vinaigrettes. You’ll also have seen other types of vinegar when doing your weekly shopping. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Red Wine Vinegar: Of the wine vinegars, red wine tends to be punchier, with more vibrant grape flavour. If you’re thinking about an Italian salad, you’re opting for red wine vinegar.
  • White Wine Vinegar: Think of red and white wine vinegars in the same way you do about red and white wines. White wine vinegar tends to be a bit lighter and more delicate in flavour. If you’re ever wondering which one to use, ask yourself, what type of wine do I want to drink with this food?
  • Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV): Like wine vinegars, apple cider vinegar tastes like the fruit that was used to make it, so, ACV tastes like hard apple cider. Use it with salads that already feature apples, or pork marinades, for instance.

(editors note: ACV can offer you many health benefits and is filled with beneficial nutrients. However, drinking it won’t have a major impact unless you’re making other steps towards your health.)

  • Distilled White Vinegar: this is the cleanest, sharpest, cheapest vinegar of the lot mentioned here. There’s not a lot to say about this white vinegar, except for acidity. White vinegar is also used for, baking, cleaning and weed control.
  • Malt Vinegar: This darker vinegar leans toward the mellower side of the acid spectrum is made from ale. The flavour is nutty and toasty, which makes malt vinegar taste fantastic on any potato product. Chipper chips anybody? Yum.

Different Types of Balsamic Vinegar

Small differences in the wording on the labels of balsamic vinegar can mean big differences between what is inside the bottle. That being said, they basically boil down to three levels, that you should be aware of: traditional, condiment grade and commercial grade balsamic vinegar.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

This is the most expensive type of balsamic vinegar. Known in Italian as, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. Produced only in Modena or Reggio Emilia, this vinegar has a protected designation of origin (DOP) from the European Union.

These fantastic vinegars are made from cooked grape must (made by pressing Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes), which is then aged in barrels. To qualify as tradizionale, balsamic vinegars must be aged for a minimum of 12 years and have no ingredients other than grape must.

Colour and Texture: Glossy, viscous, and dark brown. It moves like syrup and has a velvety texture on the tongue.

Flavour: A rich, complex sweetness with notes of fig, cherry, chocolate, or prune. Traditional balsamic should pick up the flavours of the wood it matured in and may have a slight smokiness. Traditional balsamic offers a mellow tartness rather than a strong acidity.

Use: Traditional balsamic is not a cooking ingredient — heating it will kill its distinctive bouquet. These high-end vinegars are expensive, so they’re best used after cooking as a finishing touch. Drizzle balsamic over soup or pair it with cheese.

Condiment-Grade Balsamic Vinegar

This is the next level down from Traditional, known in Italy as Aceto Balsamico di Modena. These vinegars must be made in the area of Modena which has a protected designation of origin (IGP) from the European Union.

Colour and Texture: A general rule of thumb is to look at the colour and price — darker vinegars will be thicker and sweeter, and pricier vinegars should be more complex and nuanced in flavour.

Flavour: IGP balsamic has a higher acidity, and that is strongly reflected in the taste.

Use: This grade of balsamic vinegar is also known as salad balsamic, which gives you a clue as to how it’s used. It’s also a great flavour enhancer for soups and stews, and ideal as a marinade.

Commercial-Grade Balsamic Vinegar

This is the commercial version, commonly labelled as “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.”

This a mass-market product based on wine vinegar with colouring, thickening agents, and flavouring added to it to simulate those of a traditional balsamic vinegar. This is the least expensive of the balsamic vinegars.

Because these non-traditional vinegars are often stored in stainless-steel vats and there is generally no aging involved, they lack complexity and character.

Purchasing Balsamic Vinegar

Retail outlets can stock many varieties of vinegar, each one coming from a different acetaia (vinegar producer), bearing a different label, and different bottle shape.

So, how do you know which one will suit your tastes? Here are five things you should know when buying balsamic vinegar:

  • Know the Different Types
  • Age Matters
  • Consider How You Will Use It
  • Observe the Bottle Shape
  • Check the Order of the Ingredients on the Label

Don’t Worry, We’re Here to Help

Buying balsamic vinegar is very similar to buying wine. The origin, quality of grapes, years of aging and how it was aged are all important factors which will determine the quality of the balsamic vinegar.

We stock a variety of balsamic vinegars here in Green Acres especially the famous Giuseppe Giusti range. Why not pop in and we can explain which of those would most satisfy your requirements.

If you would like to talk to any of the wine team here in Green Acres about vinegars, pop-in, call us, browse online or email me at james@greenacres.ie.

#maskingforafriend – Talk Soon – James.

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