Although a staple salad dressing ingredient in the majority of households, few really stop to think about what balsamic vinegar is. Many know it is a derivative of wine… but how it goes from grape to wine to vinegar is something few understand. As it turns out, there are fascinating facts behind the story of balsamic vinegar: it’s definition, where it is made, and how it is produced are all incredibly interesting.
What IS vinegar, anyway?
The word “vinegar” actually comes from the French words vin aigre, which means “sour wine”. Basic vinegar doesn’t necessarily come from grape wine: it is made from any fermented liquid, which bacteria converts into acetic acid. This is, of course, the plain old vinegar we use for cleaning, deodorizing, etc.
Balsamic vinegar is another realm.
The stuff we see on the shelves (which I like to call “BLAH-salmics”) is usually just red wine vinegar which is both sweetened and colored by the addition of caramel. But the true balsamic from Italy is another story. Only the Emilia-Romagna makes “real” balsamic vinegar in its towns of Modena and Reggio. How do you know that it is true balsamic? Not surprisingly, the Italians have a designation for it (much like how they and the French have special designations for their wines to): aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio will be printed on the label if it is a true balsamic.
So how does it get to be that syrupy, delicious and coveted (and expensive!!) balsamic?
The process begins with the must of grapes. (The must is all the skins, leaves, stems, etc. that is left over after the grapes have been crushed and fermented. It gives the wine nearly its entire flavor, but is only necessary until the wine is moved from large vats into barrels for aging.) The concoction is boiled down into a syrup; this syrup ferments and yeasts convert it to vinegar. THEN the vinegar is aged: a minimum of 12 years in different woods (anything from chestnut to cherry barrels is used, each imparting different flavors into the liquid). Water continues to evaporate as the years go by, and the vinegar becomes thicker and more syrup-like throughout the aging process.
Why the name balsamic?
The name actually comes from the word “balmy”, which was used to describe the “balmy” wood smell that wafted from where the barrels were stored.
So… do I put it in a salad?
No. Not this stuff: it’s way too expensive!!! Italians use the tiniest portion, mix it with butter or oil, then drizzle the mixture on fish, cooked vegetables, strawberries, thinly-sliced porcini mushrooms… the list goes on. The tastiest example of how to use balsamic is a regional favorite: Italians from the balsamic-producing region soak Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a bit of the liquid gold. Yum: that alone is worth a trip to Emilia-Romagna!