Famous British writer and humorist, Sue Townsend once said in an interview, “I am from the working class. I am now what I was then. No amount of balsamic vinegar and Prada handbags could make me forget what it was like to be poor.”
Snarky humor aside, it is no secret that balsamic vinegar has often been associated with affluence. This is probably because genuine balsamic vinegar is quite expensive. However, if you ask chefs, or just anyone who uses it, they would tell you that it’s worth every dollar. Curious just how true that is? Read on then.
Balsamic Vinegar: The Scoop
Let’s first tackle the most basic of questions, shall we? What really is balsamic vinegar? Aside from being a sour condiment that has undergone fermentation, what else makes balsamic vinegar what it is?
You have probably spied all kinds of bottles touting themselves as “balsamic vinegar”. And they may be from all kinds of manufacturers from various countries. But to tell you the truth, many of those you find in supermarket shelves are not true balsamic vinegar.
At a glance, you can say balsamic vinegar is a thick, dark, and concentrated vinegar that is made with grape must or red wine. However, not all balsamic vinegars are created equal. Basically, they are grouped into three main categories or grades.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Authentic traditional balsamic vinegar are aged, pretty much like wine, for a specific number of years. Also, the real stuff is only made with grape must, and only comes from two localities in Italy—Modena and Reggio Emilia. Both of these cities can be found in the Emilia-Romagna region. Why? This is because they were the only ones given the label by the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin, or DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). Moreover, and here is where it gets a bit tricky, for traditional balsamic vinegars, you may find different labels.
The traditional balsamic labels depends on the place where it’s produced and how long they were aged. They are the following:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Modena, Italy. Its quality and taste is checked and judged by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena.
- Affinato – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Modena that is aged for a minimum of 12 years.
- Extravecchio – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Modena that is aged for a minimum of 25 years.
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Its quality and taste is checked and judged by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Reggio Emilia.
- Aragosta – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Reggio Emilia that is aged for a minimum of 12 years.
- Argento – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Reggio Emilia that is aged for about 6 or 7 more years than aragosta.
- Oro – a traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Reggio Emilia that is aged for a minimum of 25 years.
Commercial-Grade Balsamic Vinegar
Much like traditional balsamic vinegar, commercial grade ones that are produced in Modena is still considered authentic. However, this grade is often mass produced, may or may not be aged, and is made with more than just grape must. Aside from grape must, it typically also has wine vinegar and may or may not have caramel and other ingredients.
Moreover, instead of DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), it has the designated label IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) label. The IGP label is a less stringent protection seal than DOP and is regulated by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena. However, it is nonetheless a significant one in protecting the authenticity of products made in Modena that has passed certain criteria for origin, quality, and recipe. Lastly, there are two types of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP, which depends on how long it was aged.
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP – aged in wooden barrels for at least 60 days.
- Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP – aged in wooden barrels for at least 3 years.
Balsamic vinegars that are made with the same ingredients, follow the same processes, and made from other Italian regions or countries may belong in this grade. However, they can’t put the name “Modena” in the label.
Condiment-Grade Balsamic Vinegar
Otherwise known as Condimenti, this grade is applicable to several types of balsamic vinegar products that has a higher quality than commercial grades. It is particularly given to the following balsamic vinegars:
- Those that are produced using the same production techniques as the traditional producers but are outside Modena and Reggio Emilia, which are therefore not regulated by any of the authorized consortia
- Products that undergo the same traditional production techniques and are produced within Modena and Reggio Emilia but are aged less than a dozen years
- Vinegars that only has a percentage of authentic Balsamic Vinegars of Modena IGP and Traditional Balsamic Vinegars of Modena and Reggio Emilia DOP as an ingredient.
Note: For these products, labels must clearly indicate that the authentic balsamic vinegar is only an ingredient and the use of the labels bearing the IGP or DOP in the ingredient must approved by the appointed consortium.
Vinegars that belong in this grade may have the following labels:
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI
- condimento balsamico
- salsa di mosto cotto
- salsa balsamica
Since many balsamic vinegars under this type are not regulated, they may vary greatly in quality, depending on various factors. However, you may still find a few worthy bottles without having to pay the hefty price tags you’d have to with the traditional grades. You just have to know how and where to look.
Out of the three grades mentioned above, the authentic ones are the traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena and Reggio Emilia, and the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP. Why? Because they are from the regions that originally cultivated the grapes used for it. Also, their quality and production are strictly regulated. That, along with the fact that it takes years to produce, makes authentic balsamic vinegars highly prized. In fact, authentic traditional balsamic vinegar can be as expensive as truffles, and prices can range from $50 up to a whopping $1000 a bottle. If you want the best balsamic vinegar there is, however, you can’t miss if you go for the real deal.
How do you Make Authentic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar?
Now, authentic balsamic vinegar is made with grape must, and only grape must (which is technically just fresh grape juice). And grape variety used for true balsamic vinegars are usually Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes. But unlike most juice, must also contains the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes. After the grapes are crushed and juiced, they are cooked or boiled until the volume of the must is reduced by a third or a half. This boiling process can take up to 14 hours.
Next, the cooked grape must is stored in wooden barrels called batteria. The barrels should hold some grape must from previous batches. The older vinegar already in the barrels are there for flavor, color, and some special bacteria that transforms the cooked grape juice into acetic acid.
Authentic Balsamic Vinegar goes through a complicated and lengthy process of aging, which is one of the main reasons for its value. In fact, traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emilia is aged for at least 12 years.
According to producers, the must inside the barrels lose about 10% of its volume every year due to evaporation. Because of this, the vinegar becomes more concentrated. After that, it is transferred to progressively smaller barrels made of different types of wood. The barrels are usually made of cherry wood, ash, acacia, chestnut wood, juniper, and oak. The process of transferring the vinegar to different types of wooden barrels significantly contributes to the vinegar’s flavor. This continues until the desired age, consistency, density, and flavor is achieved.
After that, producers ship the vinegar to the appointed Balsamic Consortium. Once there, experts will check, judge, and give their seal of approval, if it passes inspection. Once that is done, the vinegar will then be bottled and shipped.
Health Benefits of Balsamic Vinegar
With all the fuss in its production and authenticity, is balsamic vinegar even worth the penny you pay for it?
Well, balsamic vinegar and traditional balsamic vinegar are among the most highly valued culinary products from Italy. And rightly so since it’s quite a versatile condiment. It can enhance the flavors of all kinds of dishes, ranging from roasted red meats, fowl, and seafood to something as unexpected as fresh fruits and desserts. In fact, its rich flavor is the perfect last touch to a bowl of fresh strawberries or a helping of yummy vanilla ice cream.
Aside from its highly versatile culinary use, however, balsamic vinegar is also quite a super food. Why? Well, it has tons of health benefits.
Grapes has polyphenol, which are antioxidants that boosts the immune system, reduces the risk of heart disease, and helps protect your body from free radicals. And since balsamic vinegar is basically a concentrated grape juice, it’s safe to say that the stuff is loaded with antioxidants.
Aside from polyphenol, it also has melanoidin, which is another antioxidant that helps regulate excess iron ions in the blood.
Good for Digestion
Polyphenol also stimulates pepsin enzymes in the body, which assists in breaking down proteins into amino acids as well as helps your intestines absorb those amino acids. Amino acids helps build and maintain muscles tissues in the body.
Lowers Bad Cholesterol
Another great thing about polyphenol is that it limits LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol from oxidizing in the body. According to scientists, LDL cholesterol is one of the common causes of clogged or blocked arteries. This means it increases your risk of strokes or heart attack.
Promotes Bone Health
Balsamic vinegar has acetic acid and stimulates pepsin in the body. The said substances are great aids in the absorption of calcium and magnesium, both of which are essential minerals for having healthy bones.
Helps You Lose Weight
Balsamic vinegar is low in calories, which makes it a healthier alternative to most dressings and sauces. Aside from that, it is also a good source of potassium, iron, and manganese, all of which contribute to the maintenance of a healthy body weight.
Helps Regulate Blood Sugar
This culinary wonder is low on the glycemic index. That means it limits your risk of experiencing energy rushes and crashes and doesn’t cause sudden peaks in your blood glucose level. This means balsamic vinegar actually enhances your insulin sensitivity, hence helping your body maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Heals Wounds and Relieves Pain
Despite what its name may imply, balsamic vinegar doesn’t actually contain any balsam in it. It does, however, have properties like balsam, which means it helps relieve pain as well as revitalize the body. In fact, it was used as a restorative cure by folk healers for hundreds of years. And it is actually one of the reasons how it got its name.
Does Balsamic Vinegar have Sugar?
Technically, the answer is “yes”. Traditional Balsamic vinegar is made with grapes.. And grapes have sugar content. In fact, grapes is among the top fruits with the most sugar content. One cup of grapes has about 23 grams of sugar. Fortunately, grapes has other health benefits that certainly outweigh its sugar content. Moreover, as with other fruits and vegetables, grapes is high in fiber. And fiber helps limit or slows down your body’s absorption of sugar.
Common balsamic vinegar, on the other hand, has caramel. And that is essentially cooked sugar. This is especially true for the cheaper kinds. So it may be wise to limit your intake of it, especially if you’re diabetic.
Remember, as with all things, moderation is the key.
How long is Balsamic Vinegar good for?
With its high price, especially with the authentic kinds, does balsamic vinegar go bad? And if it does, how long is it good for?
It’s a known fact that most kinds of vinegar can be used as a preservative. Ever heard of “pickling”? Pickling is a method of preserving food by using vinegar. And balsamic vinegar is just like other vinegars in that respect. However, as with most food items, it does have an expiration date, hence it can go bad.
According to one brand of commercial-grade producer, the typical shelf life of balsamic vinegar can be 3 to 5 years. However, if you’re careful in its storage, balsamic vinegar may very well last for more than 5 years.
How to properly store balsamic vinegar?
As with other typical vinegars, balsamic vinegar should be kept away from light and heat. So you should store it in a cool, dry place.