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Please help me understand Balsamic vinegar

I have 2 bottles of it at home, but I'm trying to understand how best to use it. Is it stronger or milder than other vinegars? How is the taste different? Do the expensive ones taste better, or are they just older? Thanks.

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  1. The expensive ones should be great on their own as a last touch to anoint a dish, great with red meat and bitter greens. The cheap ones I would avoid or reduce with sugar until thickened, though this really stinks the house up. You can also use to make a simple vinaigrette, I like to balance it with honey and whisk with olive oil, as a dressing for salad don't worry about too much whisking, it's better unemulsified really, could also be warmed up and served over fish. At work I briefly marinate tuna with balsamic gastrique( the vinegar reduced with sugar), soy sauce and olive oil: a great raw snack, or simply seared. Hope all that is of some help.

    2 Replies
    1. re: tigerbitesman

      Great balsamic vinegars are aged, for a minimum of 12 years in a "batterie" of wood casks (each cask is also made with a different wood). As the vinegar ages, it begins acquiring the flavors of the wood, much like a wine would in an oak barrel. A great deal of evaporation also occurs over the years, and the vinegar becomes slightly syrup-y, or thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. The last change is the most miraculous: the vinegar actually changes from being vinegar-y to being slightly sweet. It's at this time the vinegar seems to revert back to its original form -- that of grape juice -- or more properly, cooked grape juice (mosto cotto). It's that sweet-tartness and 12 years of wood-aging that make it, in my mind, nectar of the gods.

      It's best used sparingly: a few drops over fresh raspberries or strawberries, sometimes
      with a crack of fresh pepper. Over roasted root vegetables, it's sublime. Or drizzled onto
      a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, especially if you have some Amarone wine near.

      Most grocery store "balsamic" vinegars are red wine vinegar with caramel coloring.
      To get a cheap approximation of the expensive stuff, dump the entire bottle into a saucepan
      and reduce the vinegar to one-third its original volume. You'll need to have the kitchen fan
      on for this. I use a wooden skewer to record the height of the original volume so that it's easy to ascertain when the mixture has been reduced to a third of that. Sometimes I add two teaspoons of brown sugar to this, transfer the liquid to a squeeze bottle and keep it in the fridge.

      There happens to be a great deal of deception and shady practices in the selling of balsamic vinegar. Make sure you are dealing with a reputable dealer. Balsamico traditionale is the most expensive, and that is from the Modena region.

      Traditionally aged balsamic outside the Modena region is sometimes called Salsa di Balsamico.

      I also like what is called condimenti balsamico, a syrup-y, not new but not aged balsamic either. My favorite is SABA, from Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California.

      But then, just about everything about Corti Brothers grocery store is wonderful. And they have a wonderful mail order catalog. http://www.cortibros.biz/

      1. re: maria lorraine

        To better understand all around the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena please read at the following website:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditio...

    2. I suggest you go to Williams-Sonoma or your local gourmet or Italian store (like DiBruno's in Philly or Dean & Deluca's in NYC), where they will likely have a tasting bar of their balsamic vinegars of different ages, sources and brands. That's the best way to find which one you like best, particularly given that some of the better ones can cost $30 - $50 a bottle. Thank you.

      1. Balsamic vinegar is a dark, thick, sweeter-then-most flavored vinegar. The quality can be so widely variable it's crazy.

        The delicious ones are delicious -- the disgusting ones are disgusting and can get very sufite-tasting which is the epitomy of nasty. I'd throw out the disgusting ones -- would rather use a more basic vinegar in a dish than a bad balsamic. Sometimes there can be sediment at the bottom so be careful how you pour.

        Tigerbitesman's balsamic gastrique (above) sounds delicious to me. Never tried. I sometimes mix with olive oil and using to dip bread, sometimes mix with olive oil and serve over asparagus. Another tasty, slightly more unusual use is over fresh fruit -- esp strawberries.

        Here's a link where you can get ma pretty good primer on the stuff:

        Here's a link to a good primer:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balsamic...

        1. There's a great article in the current issue of Cook's Illustrated called "How to Buy a Good Balsamic Vinegar". The did taste tests and they rate the best, which are not necessarily always the most expensive.
          You can also go here...
          http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-balsa...

          Hope that helps!

          1. Why not just open up a bottle and taste it? The good ones are sweet, balanced and almost syrupy. I only have the 10 year aged. There are ones labeled Modena that are more like $50 a bottle which I do not have the pleasure of trying yet.

            I like it as a garnish, not to cook with. Great drizzled over a grilled steak, or use as salad dressing with olive oil. My favorite is arugula, shaved (good) parmesan, then drizzle with good olive oil & balsamic. I have also dip ripe strawberries into balsamic.

            1. Reduce 1 cup balsamic with cherries (frozen work fine) and 1/2 cup of good red wine (any variatal) and 2-3 tsps butter and you'll have a great sauce for venison or steak.

              Just simmer everything till syrupy.

              I've also made reductions of balsamic with ginger, or figs, or dried apricots, or sake, or blackberries, or beer or any combination.

              I did one of a nice sauvingnon blank, balsamic, butter, a little soy sauce and pre-boiled (3 min) and peeled cippoline onions. It was a great side dish!

              3 Replies
              1. re: Diana

                Oh, my God... the price!! Good balsamic can cost $50 a cup.

                I use it in half-teaspoons on things like vanilla or sweet-cream ice cream.

                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                  I found that one can get good basic balsamic vinegar from Surfas for a good price-less then $30 a bottle(this is Italian imported, but not super old) This is affordable, and reduces to a fabulous syrup.

                  You don't honestly think that all the reductions you eat in fine dining places are made from $50 per cup balsamico?

                  You can also reduce the fake stuff. With other ingredients added to the reduction, such as figs, fruit, wine or whatnot, only the most discerning of palates would complain.

                  1. re: Diana

                    Of course not... and since I don't eat in many fine-dining places I tend to be stuck with the people who take the red wine vinegar crap and try to pass it off as balsamic.

              2. How do you store balsamic vinegar? Once a bottle is opened, how long does it last? Does it ever sour or spoil?

                1 Reply
                1. re: Kari

                  Mine's stored at room temp. I don't know how it can spoil - it's already vinegar...

                2. Yep, taste it and go with your senses. I would add that a good vinegar should not be musty or harsh. If the vinegar just tastes bad to you, throw it out. I really like it in salad dressings or as a sauce for Asian dumplings or cooked greens if I don't have black vinegar on hand. (Or cube an avocado, then toss gently with salt, pepper, and the vinegar - fabulous!)

                  http://frugalcuisine.blogspot.com

                  1. Expensive balsamic vinegar isn't a typical vinegar. Its more sweet than than sour. One recommended use is as a drink, like a dessert port. The sky is the limit on price.

                    Cheap balsamic vinegar (say the $2/bottle at Trader Joe's) is a more typical vinegar - definitely something you would not drink straight. I prefer cheaper balsamic vinegars for vinaigrettes.

                    Given the huge differences, it's disappointing we apply the label the entire range as balsamic vinegar. Varieties on both the cheap expensive ends have their uses, but you probably wouldn't want to substitute cheap for expensive or vice versa.

                    1. There are three types.

                      First, the supermarket ones that go for under $10, which are flavored with the real stuff. They can give a nice flavor to a salad dressing, particularly if you reduce them by about 20%.

                      Second, the older ones, usually in tall, narrow bottles, going for $10 to $50, but not labeled "traditionale." There's so much variation and hype that it's impossible to say much about them, other than take recommendations from people who have tried them.

                      Instead of the first or second level, go to a Chinese market and get aged vinegar, "Shenxi," which costs around $7 for a liter. My favorite is the "China's Secret" brand.

                      Third are the "true" balsamics, always labeled with the magic word is "traditionale." They come in small bottles, bulbous at the bottom, and range from $90 to astronomical. These are aged for years and periodically switched to small barrels of varying kinds of wood.

                      The least expensive traditionales (often called "silver label") are great, but if you're going to pay that much, go to the second level (often called "gold label"), at $125 to $175. They're syrupy and much more concentrated and intense. You use a few drops on simply steamed vegetables, sliced fruit (especially strawberries), as an after-dinner aperetif or as a sore throat cure. For a special gift, the third level ones are amazing.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: KRS

                        wow. great little explanation KRS. i have to admit that i have never gone the SHENXI route. will try it, tho.
                        a little extra bit for everyone: good-tasting (i.e. to your tastes, forget the price) balsamic drizzled on most desserts is wonderful. berries with whipped cream drizzled this way are pretty crazygood.

                        1. re: KRS

                          I agree with Ben61820.
                          I was just researching as a novice, and this indeed is a GREAT little explanation.
                          I'm in the process of looking to order something today, and will also check out the SHENXI chinese vinegar.

                          In the past I have only bought really cheap, supermarket balsamic vinegars and got what I paid for. However, the last one I bought was a "Regina" brand at my local Walmart. I found it to be far superior to the few other supermarket brands I have bought. It is a smidgen thicker and definitely sweeter. I can definitely tell the sweetness when I add it to recipes where I have added vinegar and sugar in the past. I either don't have to add the sugar, or add less sugar.

                          1. re: MsMel608

                            Ast year we bought the third level aceto balsamico tradizionale de Moden from Modena and it is like liquid gold. We use only a few drops at a time and it is glorious. It is one of my favourite things in the house, actually. If our house was on fire it is one thing I would grab.

                        2. Balsamic vinegar is richer and sweeter than regular vinegar--mix a few splashes of it with olive oil on a salad and toss--see how it tastes and use accordingly--blood orange salad with a splash of balsamac is great--I don't like regular vinegar since I started using Balsamic 20 years ago--good luck...

                          1. Due to the sweetness balsamic vinegar can act as a counterbalance to say blue cheese in a salad. I enjoy with mixed greens including arugula, radicchio, and frisee with walnuts, blue cheese and of course good olive oil.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Chinon00

                              +1 to that! I don't make a salad at home without a crumble of imported gorgonzola, and a balsamic vinagrette with better than average Balsamico puts it over the top.

                            2. It's good as a seasoning in a stewed fruit compote, or even (if it's decent stuff) sprinkled onto cut-up fresh fruit, especially stone fruits. I also like to use it on lamb chops that I'm going to pan-broil - spread some on both sides, then salt and pepper, and let'em sit at room temp for about an hour before cooking. This is something I used to do with worcestershire sauce, but the balsamic has a sharper and cleaner flavor. Don't even know exactly what brand I have - it's in a squatty square bottle with a wooden/cork stopper.

                              1. I like a good salad dressing made with balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard and oil. Also try some of the flavored vinegars, love the fig balsamic which tastes great just be itself.

                                1. We buy our balsamico and olive oils through Rare Wine Company of Sonoma. Their annual balsamico newsletter is always a great read (as are all their newsletters). They have a section of their website dedicated to balsamicos - enjoy!

                                  http://www.rarewineco.com/html/bals.htm

                                  1. try pouring a bit from each bottle into a teaspoon and tasting it straight -- that'll tell you a lot about what to do with it and what your tastes prefer.

                                    8 Replies
                                    1. re: orangewasabi

                                      I'm actually doing this since I started this post. I was really surprised at what I tasted. Great suggestions!

                                      1. re: orangewasabi

                                        And when you do find one you like, try a few drops on a piece of freshly shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. I think that will get you much closer to understanding Balsamico, per your original post.

                                        1. re: mimosa

                                          Please also see a recent Chowhound thread devoted to balsamic vinegar
                                          at http://www.chowhound.com/topics/368746

                                          Mimosa makes some excellent purchasing suggestions there.

                                          And we agree on the balsamic/reggiano thing, as I mentioned above. Though I think
                                          it's nice to have a glass of Amarone near to pair with them...just like they do in Verona at the enoteca Bottega del Vino.

                                          1. re: maria lorraine

                                            Great balsamics are used in small amounts.....true balsamics are the 12 year old (or older) varieties. Once you get beyond 12 years, however, most commercial processes change slightly. Instead of moving the vinegar into smaller and smaller barrels (as in true balsamics)....red wine vinegar is used to replace the evaporated portion each year. A true balsamic aged beyond 12 years will probably run in the $50 to $100 price range.

                                            Also, I'm in culinary school, and we did a taste tasting of oils and vinegars. One of the things we learned is that for a reduction sauce, 99.99999% of restaurants are going to use a mass produced lesser quality vinegar. Its awful tough to justify taking a 12 year old balsamic and reducing it further, since it already has been reduced greatly through the process of production.

                                            I would highly recommend finding an oil/vinegar bar in your area. They're becoming more popular, and have alternatives such as pomegranate, blood orange, strawberry, etc...all made from 12 year old, along with a great variety of olive oils. Take a tip, and don't use the bread to dip when you try.....just taste!

                                            1. re: pakrguru

                                              My trick is to buy the less expensive stuff and reduce it myself...it then becomes sweeter, thicker and more syrupy

                                              1. re: NellyNel

                                                <<It's awful tough to justify taking a 12 year old balsamic and reducing it further...>>

                                                Just want to clarify...no one is suggesting this.

                                                The reason for reducing a cheap bottle of balsamic is that it approximates the expensive authentic aged balsamico. It's a great trick.

                                                And the key to buying cheap balsamic is to make sure it's from Modena. That will be listed on the label. (Brands not from Modena are usually red wine vinegar with caramel coloring and flavor added.) The Monari brand (green label with yellow grapes) is a good one, about $4 for the standard size, the same price as non-Modena brands. Instructions on how to reduce cheap balsamic vinegar here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5077...

                                                I'm a huge fan of the Saba, the precursor to authentic balsamic, from Azienda Agricola San Geminiano, aged 3 years. The San Geminiano is complex, with great grounding, perfectly balanced between tart and sweet, slightly viscous. Amazing at $10/250ml. This is best Saba I've found. Other brands are slightly sweeter, without a necessary tang.
                                                http://www.cortibros.biz/tek9.asp?pg=...

                                                Other terms to bear in mind regarding less expensive balsamic vinegars:
                                                Salsa balsamica is what balsamic traditionale is often called if made outside of Modena. This is what you find in Tuscany, for example. Condimento also refers to balsamic made outside of Modena, or to balsamic made in Modena but without "official" approval, or to balsamic aged less than 12 years. You have to check the labels to make sure what you're getting.

                                                But nothing beats the real deal. Authentic balsamico traditionale -- aged 12 years, 25 years, or more -- is nectar of the gods, one of the finest ingredients on the planet. It's a finishing vinegar, transformative, and only a drop or two is used on top of roasted root vegetables, Reggiano, berries, vanilla ice cream, etc.

                                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                                  Nice detail, thank you! I'll be in Italy in March and can now make a more informed choice when I purchase!

                                              2. re: pakrguru

                                                There is such a vinegar/oil tasting bar at the Temecula Olive Co. store in Temecula, CA. After a morning of paying to taste a lot of not-so-good wine it was a genuine treat to have many free sips of things that were MEANT to be vinegar! As for the quality, it was all nice enough for the price, certainly no threat to Modena.

                                        2. You can buy good balsamic vinegar at TJ Max

                                          1. Simmer a small amount briefly in a little saute or sauce pan until it reduces to syrupy consistency; use as a dipping sauce for quickly oven-browned, prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with gorgonzola.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Riccardo

                                              Wow. I might even drizzle some of that over the Dionysian dates while they were roasting.