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Mar 14, 2007 11:02 AM

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.

      1. re: maria lorraine

        To better understand all around the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena please read at the following website:

    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:

        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...

          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.