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HELP: Balsamic vinegar advice needed

  • j
  • JBM May 1, 2002 03:34 PM
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I'm looking to purchase a single, high quality bottle of balsamic vinegar as a gift for a VERY experienced and talents home cook. I know little about the differences between the various kinds and brands. Anyone out there have any advice? What am I looking for? Are there specific brands that are best? And, finally, where should I be doing my shopping?

Thanks!

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  1. I recommand you dropping by Formaggio's Kitchen in Cambridge and ask to speak w/ Sarah or Jessica. One of them (or maybe both or them, don't remember) is the dry goods buyer and is very knowledgable about vinger/oil/etc.

    I have great luck w/ cheese and olive oil there so far, and I imagine you should have good help on balsamic vinegar there.

    good luck.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Ben C.

      I'll second the recommendation for Formaggio Kitchen -- they're very knowledgeable and helpful. I'll also share the dangerous little bit of knowledge (!) that I have.

      There are roughly three grades of balsamico: cheap supermarket stuff, which is a few bucks a bottle and fine for salad dressings, marinades, etc. -- they have a few good kinds at Formaggio, actually, for around 5 dollars a bottle. It's basically a sweeter, more caramelized tasting red wine vinegar.

      Then there's the higher-quality commercial balsamic, which runs from about 10-30 dollars for a bottle. Fini is one, Cavalli is another. These are basically a more refined version of the supermarket stuff, made in a way that is closer to the traditional process. They're usually too harsh to use alone, but they do make a better dressing than the supermarket variety. (A drizzle is nice on grilled vegetables, too.)

      Then there's the real stuff, aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (or the other region in Italy where traditional balsamic is made). I believe it's the word "tradizionale" that distinguishes it from the other stuff -- it's a controlled denomination, like Parmigiano Reggiano.) This is white grape must (juice) boiled down until concentrated and then aged for years in wood barrels. Unbelievably good stuff. A few drops on strawberries -- mmm! Really, a few drops on ANYTHING. It's really a condiment, not an ingredient -- it shouldn't be cooked. It always costs at least 60-70 bucks, *minimum*, for a very small bottle. The price goes up (way up, into the hundreds) with how long it's been aged.

      It really is worth going to a good and trustworthy place like Formaggio because there are various scams associated with balsamic vinegar, from the garden-variety, like the cute little bottles filled with supermarket stuff, but selling for 10-15 dollars, to the more serious, like selling 80 dollar bottles of "authentic traditional balsamico" that really aren't.

      1. re: MichaelB
        s
        ScratchBaker

        We should do a blind taste test some night. As I posted above, a NY chef recommended boiling down the cheap stuff to come up with a close second to the pricey stuff, and I was pretty happy with the results. And the house smells pretty nice after that, too :-) Sort of reminds me of some of those blind beer taste tests...

        1. re: ScratchBaker

          That's assuming you start out with a good cheap balsamic vinegar. Reducing is not new in cooking. I do it all the time for chicken soup....but I've never tried it on something like balsamic vinegar. I'll have to experiement with that idea, reducing blasamic vinegar.

          When you are reducing the balsamic vinegar, how did you do it? Did you bring it to a boil? or did you reduced it gently at low heat...medium heat? I got a bottle of cheap balsamic vinegar to try it on.

          In addition, I'll probably have to buy one those Gold Seal's from Formaggio Kitchen...and use it as my baseline in the comparsion...(got to have something to compare it with, right? :)

          1. re: leonard
            s
            ScratchBaker

            If you have all day, simmer it, but what the heck, who has time? I kept it at a low boil and watched it so it didn't do anything funky, like overboil the pot. After all, you're just removing H2O, so I don't think the temperature is too critical. I also used a no-stick pan. Once it's sort of syrupy, it should be at the half-way point; otherwise, make a note of the level when you started.

            I also like to reduce spaghetti sauce :-)

            1. re: leonard
              s
              ScratchBaker

              If you have all day, simmer it, but what the heck, who has time? I kept it at a low boil and watched it so it didn't do anything funky, like overboil the pot. After all, you're just removing H2O, so I don't think the temperature is too critical. I also used a no-stick pan. Once it's sort of syrupy, it should be at the half-way point; otherwise, make a note of the level when you started.

              I also like to reduce spaghetti sauce :-)

              1. re: ScratchBaker

                I don't think it's the case that you're just boiling off water. I think that as acetic acid is more volatile than water, if the cheap balsamic vinegars are too high in acid (due to insufficient aging), this will boil off first. Possibly other harsh compounds will evaporate at the same time.

      2. I suggest you try Formaggio Kitchen. Stores in Cambridge and South End. They probably have a good selection, and their staff is generally very knowledgeable and helpful.

        Marty's Liquors in Newton and Allston also carries a large selection. Although I do not know enough to comment on the quality of what they carry.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Andy T.

          Or, if you are lazy like me...try their web site
          www.formaggiokitchen.com

        2. Do you need it expensive or in-expensive?

          SHAWs have a 20year old Blasami Vinegar that is not bad. It's a small bottle, 8.5 oz., and runs around $10...

          1. Try Oliviers & Company on Newbury Street. They have a very upscale selection of imported olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

            161 Newbury Street
            Boston MA 02116
            Phone: (617) 859-8841

            Link: http://usa.oliviersandco.com/

            1. Formaggio Kitchen is one of those rare, special stores where it is safe to reason as follows regarding any product you see: "The fact that they have it here means it is good." The high quality of every single item I've ever purchased there (oils, cheeses, chocolates, coffee, ice cream, sausage, bacon, etc.) is testimony to the thorough due diligence of their buyers. If he's there, the owner may be even more useful to talk with than the specific buyers mentioned below. I asked him once about the olive oil selection, and his expertise was remarkable.

              In short, I can't provide you with advice regarding balsamic, but I can put you in touch with people than can. Go to Formaggio Kitchen.

              1. s
                ScratchBaker

                A NY Times article a few years ago quoted a chef that if you take any cheap balsamic vinegar and boil it down to double strength (e.g., 1 cup til it's 1/2 cup), it tastes as good as well-aged, expensive balsamic vinegar. So I tried it and agree. I think a nice gift would be a good raspberry vinegar. Great in salads, and in oil-based chocolate cake recipes!

                1. Thanks.

                  I actually have the time to boil it all day. My wife likes to have vinegar simmering in the kitchen when someone in the household has a cold. I guess the acidity in the air keeps those germs from traveling in the air,or something like that...so, the Balasmic vinegar will do double duty...keep her happy when there is a cold in the house, and I'll have my reduced balasmic vinegar :)