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What Is Balsamic Vinegar?
Balsamic vinegar, or aceto balsamico if you’re fancy (or Italian, or both), is a vinegar made partially or entirely of grape must—the fresh grape juice of Trebbiano and Lambrusco varietals. Skins, stems, and all are aged in wooden barrels to the result of an incredibly dark, concentrated substance with shades of roasted fig and deep summer prunes and the subtle tartness of dark chocolate and sherry.
While balsamic vinegar used to be a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, only produced in Reggio Emilia and nearby Modena, these days you can find it in grocery stores all over the world. White balsamic vinegar, typically made from white Trebbiano grapes, is another beloved specialty of the region.
2 Types of Balsamic Vinegar
There are many subcategories and designations of balsamic vinegar, but there are two main categories that are helpful to know.
- Traditional. This is the good stuff. True balsamic vinegar comes in two classifications: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia). These vinegars are aged for a minimum of 12 years (invecchiato, or aged) and upwards of 25 years (extravecchio, or extra aged), and result in a thick, glossy syrup called mosto cotto. Good quality aged balsamic vinegars have complex flavors and sumptuous viscosity—sometimes they’re even sipped as a palate cleanser or aperitif.
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. On the commercial-grade end of the spectrum, you find products with an IGP classification, which requires a minimum aging of only two months. As a result, Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP, Balsamico Condimento, or any number of imitations you’ll find on shelves often contain flavor and color additives to help mimic the quality or texture of a traditional balsamic. They’re generally thinner and less balanced, but are a better option for things like balsamic glazes or dressings—instances where you might not want to use large quantities that fancy 25-year-old stuff.
How to Use Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Traditional balsamic vinegars are not intended for cooking, since heat zaps its complex aromas, or in dressings, where the flavors that have taken years to develop get muddled. Instead, drizzle it straight onto single ingredients like strawberries or fresh Parmesan cheese, or use it as a garnish on anything that would benefit from its sharp sweetness and tang, like a thick stew or risotto. It's also delicious on rich, creamy desserts like vanilla ice cream or panna cotta.
How to Make Easy Balsamic Vinaigrette
Balsamic vinegars that haven’t spent as much time in wood casks are a great addition to things like salad dressing, where they can help give dimension on a subtler scale. To make a classic balsamic vinaigrette dressing, whisk 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar with 2 tablespoons of good extra-virgin olive oil and salt and black pepper (even a teaspoon of Dijon mustard if you like more of a kick) in a small bowl for a musky sweet addition to fresh arugula or crudite. You can up the quantities, sticking to the same ratio, and shake in a mason jar for easy emulsification and storage.
Health Benefits of Balsamic Vinegar
There’s a reason balsamic vinegar got its name from the Latin balsamum, meaning restorative, or curative. It’s high in antioxidants and has been shown to lower cholesterol levels; it’s antiglycemic, which makes it a boon for diabetics looking to stabilize blood sugar; and its main active compound is acetic acid, the same probiotic bacteria that gives kimchi its superpowers, boosting immunity and helping you feel full.
Learn more cooking techniques with Chef Thomas Keller here.