Few foods have enjoyed the widespread fame of balsamic vinegar, not only as a condiment, but as a form of medicine, since the turn of the second millennium. This luxurious liquid has been produced in and around the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna since the year 1000, and myths and legends have long attested to its medicinal properties. In 1046, a Benedictine monk pronounced balsamic vinegar beneficial; Lucrezia Borgia sipped it to fight childbirth pains; Francesco IV, Duke of Modena, used it to soothe his ulcer; and composer Gioacchino Rossini drank it to calm his nerves.

Tradizionale and Condimento balsamics are made in Modena and Reggio-Emilia using artisan methods established in the Renaissance and dating back to the Middle Ages.  Balsamic vinegar is one of Emilia Romagna’s oldest and proudest products. To make this vinegar, the must  (grape juice before fermentation) of Trebbiano and other grapes grown in the Emilian countryside is slowly cooked over an open fire and reduced to as little as one-third of its original volume (the exact amount of reduction depends on the vintage, the sugar content of the grapes, and the producer’s preference). The cooked must is filtered and poured into oak barrels, where it matures over the winter. In the spring, the aging process begins, and lasts a minimum of 12 years: the vinegar is poured into smaller casks made of different kinds of wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, ash, and mulberry), each of which imparts a particular aroma and color to the final product.

The barrels, held in an attic environment where the sun’s rays are allowed to filter in and play their part in the vinegar’s evolution, are topped with vinegar from the next larger barrel so that they are always two-thirds full. It takes 770 pounds of grapes to produce 15 quarts of vinegar, which explains the high cost of genuine balsamic vinegar.

The longer the balsamic vinegar ages, the more complex, and expensive, it becomes: 2 months of aging in wooden barrels is the minimum required by the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (known as CABM), but a special version is aged 3 years or longer to yield a rich, deep vinegar with a fuller body and a sweeter, mellower flavor with hints of wood. Even better than Aceto Balsamico di Modena is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, which is aged a minimum of 12 years and up to 25 years or longer… even 100 years is not unheard of! One word–Tradizionale–makes all the difference, and means that the vinegar was aged longer than other balsamic vinegars.

Authentic balsamic vinegar, not the typical commercial product, is more of a glaze than a vinegar; rich, thick, sTastiest Balsamic Vinegarweet, and aromatic, its acidity is perfectly balanced by its sweetness. To ensure that consumers are able to differentiate between authentic balsamic vinegar from Modena and lesser imitation vinegars, the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena has created a special seal that can only be placed around bottles that pass their stringent tests. If a bottle of vinegar is wearing the CAMB seal, the vinegar is guaranteed to have been made from indigenous grape varietals and produced and bottled in its area of origin, in or around Modena.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is markedly different from other wine vinegars, whose pronounced acidity and pungent taste can oftentimes be jolting. Its deeper, mellower flavor makes it an ideal choice for much more than just dressing salads. Try a drop of it in pan sauces for meat or fish, where it lends a pleasant yet subdued note of acidity. Rather delicate, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is best suited to subtle preparations: sprinkled over steamed vegetables or a platter of thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, drizzled on fresh field strawberries and vanilla-bean gelato, or whisked into warm zabaglione.

Which Balsamic Vinegar Should I Buy?

Choosing a good imported balsamic vinegar is like buying a fine wine: You need to sample several until you find one you love. Although all varieties have a 6 percent acidity level, they vary in flavor depending on the proportion of cooked-down crushed grape to wine vinegar, the type and size of wooden casks they were aged in, and the length of time they were aged. Better varieties are aged for at least three years in wooden barrels, which produces an intense, woody flavor.

In an effort to boost sales, some companies may make false aging claims on their labels; others don’t follow production specifications governed by Italian law (the United States doesn’t oversee label claims on imported balsamic vinegar). But there is one way to know you’re purchasing a quality product: Look for a seal from the Consortium for the Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (CABM). A burgundy-colored seal (you’ll find it on the neck band of the bottle) guarantees product authenticity and indicates an aging period of less than three years, making these vinegars a good choice for salad dressings and pan sauces. The gold and white “Invecchiato” (aged) CABM seal guarantees that the product has been aged more than three years in a wooden cask, creating a more delicate (and more expensive) vinegar suitable for drizzling over vegetables, fruit, and prosciutto.

True aceto balsamic vinegar comes in 3.4 ounce bottles and sells from $50.00 to $500.00 per bottle. It must be aged a minimum of 10 years. The better balsamic vinegars are aged 25 to 50 years (these are not to be poured, but used by the drop). Dark in color and syrup in consistency, they have a flavor that is a balance of sweet and sour. Tradizionale has a mellow acidity and a sharp aroma.

Balsamic Vinegar, due to its acidity level, has a very long shelf life. Unopened, Balsamic vinegar can be stored indefinitely. Once opened, you want to store it in a cool dark place. After several years, the opened bottle may start to mellow in taste, but it will not go “bad.”

Recipes to use your balsamic vinegar:

Arugula with  Steak, Lemon and Parmesan

Serves 8

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • Dash kosher salt
  • Dash freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds beef tri-tip steak or other sirloin steak
  • 1 bunch (about 5 1/2 cups) arugula
  • 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shaved

Directions:

To make the dressing, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Grill the beef to medium rare, let cool 10 minutes. Slice thin.

Toss the arugula with the dressing and add beef and shaved Parmesan.

 Chicken with Balsamic Tomatoes

Chicken with Balsamic Tomatoes

Balsamic vinegar and tomatoes make a delicious sauce to serve over chicken breast and pasta.

4 servings (1 breast with sauce and pasta each)

  • 8 ounces dried multigrain penne pasta, uncooked
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 1 lb)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 1  14.5 oz can (such as Muir Glen) diced tomatoes with Italian herbs, undrained
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, heat oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken with garlic salt and pepper; cook chicken 5 to 7 minutes or until browned, turning once. Remove from skillet; set aside. Add onion to skillet; cook 1 to 2 minutes over medium heat or until crisp-tender.

Add tomatoes and vinegar to skillet; bring to a simmer. Return chicken to skillet; cook 10 to 12 minutes more or until chicken is no longer pink (165°F).

Serve chicken and sauce with pasta. If desired, slice each chicken breast before placing on pasta.

Root Vegetables Roasted with Honey, Balsamic, and Spices

Servings: 12

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon whole fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon whole dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
  • 2 parsnips
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 2 cups additional vegetables, such as shallots, sweet potatoes or yams, red onions, turnips
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the fennel seed and toast, shaking constantly, until the seeds are fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour onto a plate to cool. Stir in the remaining spices.

Peel the vegetables and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with 1 tablespoon of the spice mixture and oil.

Spread the seasoned vegetables on a baking sheet in a single layer — do not crowd them together or they won’t roast properly.

Roast for 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are well- browned and soft. Loosen the vegetables from the pan with a thin spatula and drizzle with the vinegar and honey.

 

 

Grilled Fruit with Balsamic Vinegar Syrup

Balsamic vinegar with its sweet-yet-tart flavor is a wonderful complement to grilled fruit.

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1 small pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into wedges
  • 2 large mangoes, cored and cut in half
  • 2 large peaches, cored and cut in half
  • Nonstick, butter-flavored cooking spray
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Mint or basil leaves, for garnish

Directions:

In a large bowl, combine the pineapple, mangoes and peaches. Spray generously with cooking spray. Toss and spray again to ensure the fruit is well-coated. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Toss to coat evenly. Set aside.

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill or broiler. Away from the heat source, lightly coat the grill rack or broiler pan with cooking spray. Position the cooking rack 4 to 6 inches from the heat source.

Place the fruit on the grill racks or broiler pan. Grill or broil over medium heat until the sugar caramelizes, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Remove the fruit from the grill and arrange on a serving plate. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and garnish with mint or basil.