When we at Robbins Family Farm do oil and balsamic tastings we are always asked questions about our balsamic vinegars. Those who have never tried this wonderful product are amazed that it is “vinegar” given all their previous experience with the usual vinegar products.
Perhaps it should never have been named vinegar! While the typical kitchen vinegar be it wine, white, apple cider or any one of several flavored types is a fermentation product balsamic is not.
In 2005 when Patti and I worked harvest in Umbria Italy we could not pick olives when it rained. Instead we would visit local balsamic makers and get to taste their artful product. We were able to see and understand the process that creates this jewel of culinary art.
Balsamic vinegar is an evaporative condiment and unlike regular kitchen vinegar, not a fermentative one.
It starts with the skins of high sugar content white grapes most often Trebbiano and occasionally Lambrusco. The grapes are crushed and pressed but the wine is separated from the skins BEFORE fermentation starts. Unlike all other vinegars, balsamic DOES NOT come from wine.
The skins are called must and are then slowly cooked in large copper pots over a wood fire for up to 2 days which removes up to half of the remaining liquid in the must. After a period of cooling each maker adds some completed balsamic vinegar which maybe up to 25 years old that is called the “mother” or starter. This is similar in concept to the starter artisan bread makers use.
The mixture is then placed in large white oak used (up to 50 years old) barrels in a warm to hot area in the home if it is a small maker or heated space for large producers. This first barrel is part of a series of progressively smaller barrels, which is called the battery. Each region in which balsamic is produced has regulations as to how many (as a minimum) progressively smaller barrels the balsamic must be moved through and how many different woods the barrels need to be made from. The woods that can be cherry, chestnut, walnut, or other regional types add the nuanced flavors to the balsamic and its characteristic dark brown color and syrup like consistency.
White balsamic undergoes the same process but is “cooked” at a lower temperature for a shorter time to avoid the darkening that occurs during the extended cooking. It also goes through a battery using white wood barrels, mostly white oak and ash or is allowed to evaporate in stainless steel.
During this process the sugars undergo a change to alcohol that then turns into acid, which ultimately turns the must into vinegar.
To be certified as a quality balsamic the entire process from start to finish must be a minimum of twelve (12) years and in the case of all of our Robbins Family Farm balsamic vinegars a full eighteen (18) years.
Now that you know more about the balsamic vinegar story why not give one or all of our balsamic vinegars a try. Perhaps you want to start to work with this terrific product slowly. We recommend our traditional dark or traditional white. They are ultra high quality balsamic with that wonderful sweet ~ tart flavor that works so well with so many foods.