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Good Cooking with Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is vinegar made from grapes and aged in wooden casks. It is not wine vinegar, because the grapes are never permitted to ferment into wine. Far superior to other vinegars, the flavor of balsamic is rich and slightly sweet. It is a culinary delight when used in sauces, marinades and vinaigrette salad dressing. Italians have enjoyed “balsamico” for more than 900 years, but only recently did it became popular in the United States.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

The best balsamic vinegars have nothing else added to them - only the grapes. Authentic balsamic is made by artisans in Modena, Italy, by the traditional process, aged at least 12 years and labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”, which is a protected name and means Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. The flavor Is dark and thick with a complex but sweet taste, well aged, and very expensive. If you want the real thing, be sure it is labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

How Balsamic Vinegar is Made

The traditional Italian method uses sweet white Trebbiano grape pressings, which are boiled down to a dark syrup in a kettle over an open fire. The syrup is placed into oak kegs, along with a vinegar "mother" to start the process. Over time the vinegar evaporates slightly, which sweetens and thickens it and mellows the flavor. Year by year, it is moved into smaller and smaller kegs. Each keg is made of a different wood, chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper, to add character to the flavor of the vinegar.

Some prized balsamic vinegars have been aged for over 100 years. The label on a bottle of tradizionale balsamico will include its age. It is this aging process that makes true balsamic vinegar so expensive. A small 100 ml bottle of tradizionale balsamico can cost between $100 and $400 USD. Less than 3,000 gallons of genuine balsamico are bottled each year. It is so highly esteemed that it is considered disgraceful to cook with it. Instead, it is meant to be drizzled drop by drop over food or used very sparingly. The very finest are sometimes sipped as a cordial.

Italian Balsamico which has not aged long enough to be called Tradizionale is called Condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto, all less expensive but high quality balsamico. Many companies produce both Tradizionale and Condimento. A lesser balsamic vinegar can still be high quality, with the sweet, balanced, almost syrupy flavor of a good balsamic.

Commercial Grade Balsamic Vinegar for Everyday

Commercial grade vinegars are made by blending traditional or condimento balsamic with simple red wine vinegar. The more traditional balsamic used, the better the taste. Commercial grade balsamics are more affordable and suitable for cooking purposes. They add life to sauces and soups and form a lovely brown glaze on grilled meats and poultry.

A low-grade imitation balsamic is made by adding brown sugar and caramel coloring to red wine vinegar, which mimics the sweetness of a balsamic. The buyer will probably be disappointed with this choice. Price will generally dictate the quality, and you get what you pay for. Some cheaper brands add sulfites as a preservative, so, if you are allergic, check the label carefully.

Good Cooking with Balsamic Vinegar

The expensive balsamic vinegars should be showcased on their own rather than used as an ingredient in cooking. Heat will destroy the aromatic qualities and subtle layers of flavor. Instead, use a few drops as a finishing touch for foods just before serving.

Commercial balsamic vinegars work well with extra-virgin olive oil in vinaigrettes, marinades and sauces. Drizzle the vinegar over grilled or roasted meats, poultry or fish, steamed vegetables, or your favorite cheese. Brush it on raw meat as a marinade. Use a tablespoon of balsamic as an ingredient in warm sauces and gravies. It will make your favorite pasta sauce come to life. Use balsamic sparingly. Because the flavor is intense, most recipes call for ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar or less.

For dessert, try balsamic on fresh melon or strawberries. Balsamic vinegar is delicious drizzled over cheesecake or ice cream. Use it as a dressing for fruit salad. Traditional Italian desserts, panna cotta, zabaglione, and crème caramel are also enhanced with balsamic vinegar.

Like all vinegar, balsamic vinegar does not need to be refrigerated. It will keep 3 years on a shelf in the pantry. If your vinegar turns cloudy with time, simply filter it through a heavy paper towel or coffee filter. The sediment at the bottom of the bottle is normal and is not harmful. When you use any vinegar to marinate food, use a non-reactive dish such as glass.

3 Scrumptious Recipes for Balsamic Vinegar

  1. Balsamic Rosemary Marinade, excellent for pork or chicken. Be sure to use a non-reactive dish when marinating the food.

    Ingredients: 2/3 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 Tbs. Soy sauce, 4 ½ tsp. firmly packed brown sugar, ¼ tsp. pepper, ½ cup chopped fresh rosemary, 5 garlic cloves peeled and chopped.

    Combine, in a food processor, the vinegar, olive oil, soy sauce, brown sugar and pepper. Then add the rosemary and garlic and continue processing until almost smooth. Marinate meat for an hour before grilling or roasting.

  2. Balsamic Vinaigrette. Serve this dressing over a tomato salad, or over grilled chicken or pork or fish.

    Ingredients: 3 tbsp. aged balsamic vinegar, 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard, Pinch of garlic, 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp. canola oil, 1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste.

    Whisk the balsamic vinegar, mustard and garlic together in a small bowl. Add the oils slowly while whisking until the vinaigrette is smooth and blended. Add salt, pepper and basil. This recipe makes about 2/3 cup.

  3. Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar

    Ingredients: 4 cups of fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced, 2 tbsp. sugar, 2 or 3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 1 quart vanilla ice cream.

    Combine the sliced strawberries with sugar and vinegar. Spoon over vanilla ice cream and serve. Delicious.

I hope life brings you much success. I wish you a very happy day.
-----     Surfer Sam  

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