How to buy, taste, and enjoy authentic balsamic vinegar
By Sean RiveraPosted Jul 11, 2012
I can’t remember when I first learned about balsamic vinegar – it was at least 25 years ago. What I can remember is the amazingly rich, decadent, velvety, and intense flavors that it gave to the dish I was eating. To be honest, I don’t even remember the dish – I just remember the balsamic vinegar.
Ever since then it has been a love affair that continues to grow. I do wish that my wallet would afford me the luxury of enjoying the aged varieties. Much like fine wine, vinegars come from true craftsmanship.
As I have been cultivated in the culinary world, I have continued to learn as much as possible about the balsamic industry and what makes its product so special. Although this article will only scratch the surface with information to help you make the best decision in your balsamic ventures, I do hope that you will become inspired to investigate. And keep reading, because I’ve included my recipe for Tantalizing Strawberries and Ice Cream with Balsamic Reduction that is worth the history lesson.
An ancient process
The craft of making this highly coveted black liquid is quite strict and rigorous, and it’s a process dating back several centuries. It began in Italy with a specific type of white grape – the trebbianno. The grapes are crushed into a mosto (or coarse mash), which is then filtered and cooked for a couple of days at a temperature of 175-200 degrees Fahrenheit. The mosto is then inoculated with a culture of aceto-bacteria, which will convert the liquid into acetic acid or wine vinegar.
Once the liquid has been activated, it begins the barrel process, batteria, which utilizes between five and 10 differently sized barrels – each made from a different kind of wood. As each barrel gets progressively smaller, the type of wood used becomes less porous. For instance, the largest sized barrel is made with chestnut (a very porous wood). Then, as the mosto ages and water evaporates, it is then moved into a smaller barrel made from other less porous wood. The process continues on down into the smallest barrel, which is made from oak (the most dense, least porous wood).
Cultivating the flavor
Another hugely relevant factor is the “topping-off” practice used in the barrels. This practice is what leads to the rich complexity and unique flavors of each brand. Here’s how it works: As each batch is bottled, part of the batch is left in the barrel so that the liquid from the previous barrel tops off the final barrel.
Since some brands offer vintages that claim to be 25 or 100 years old, do not be fooled! While the original liquid may be several decades old, it is topped off each year in the smallest barrel; therefore the true age cannot be directly measured. In fact, in Italy it is technically illegal to claim that a vintage is aged beyond 12 years. Can you believe there is even a law for that?
Finding the right bottle
So now that we know how the grapes are grown, how the liquid is aged, and what gives it the flavor, I am going to help you figure out how to buy a good bottle. With prices ranging from $5 to several hundred dollars, check the CABM or AIB rating, and then check your wallet to see what you can afford.
In 2001, the Consorzio Aceta Balsamico di Modena (CABM) was formed. It designated a red label to indicate that the vinegar has aged for a minimum of three years and a white label to indicate that the vinegar has aged for more than three years. A better association was also formed in 2001 that is more useful for us. The Assaggiatori Italiani Balsamico, AIB (Italian Balsamic Vinegar Tasting Association), designated a leaf-based rating system to help provide taste distinctions rather than aged years. A one-leaf rating signifies lighter flavors, while a four-leaf rating hints at the flavor being “most desirable.”
Balsamic, strawberries, and ice cream
So, how to eat balsamic and how to thoroughly enjoy it? I am saving the best for last, of course!
Fresh strawberries over high-quality vanilla ice cream topped with a balsamic reduction: Although it sounds weird, this concoction is tantalizing. When the creamy ice cream blends with the balsamic vinegar, it tastes almost like a rich dark chocolate. Plus, unless you have a top-notch budget to buy the Four Leaf label balsamic, making the reduction is easy and allows you to turn a grocery store balsamic into something to brag about with your foodie friends.
1 eight-ounce bottle Italian balsamic (any kind is fine as long as it is from Italy)
2-4 tbsp. brown sugar – organic if you got it!
Put the ingredients into a wide, medium-sized saucepan and let it barely simmer over medium-low heat until the mixture has reduced and coats the back of a teaspoon. It should coat the spoon evenly and slowly roll off the back.
Tantalizing Strawberries & Ice Cream with Balsamic Reduction
1 cup of fresh strawberries, Louisiana grown
1-2 tsp. table sugar
2 tbsp. balsamic reduction
2 cups French vanilla ice cream
Wash, stem, and slice the strawberries, then top with sugar. Stir together and set aside.
Let the ice cream just start to melt – that is when the flavor is the best. Serve one cup of ice cream per bowl. Top with half of the strawberries. Spoon the balsamic reduction over each dish as you would chocolate sauce, then sit back and let your taste buds be tantalized! If you want to be daring and dazzling, try some fresh ground black pepper on top.
Questions or comments? Write to Sean at Food@DigBatonRouge.com.