Although most homes have a bottle or two of balsamic vinegar in their kitchens, many aspiring cooks don’t know how balsamic vinegar is made or how the product’s ingredients can affect taste. Originating in Italy, balsamic vinegar consists of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. Like wine, balsamic vinegars are typically aged in casks made of oak, cherry and other woods.
While the balsamic vinegar sits in the cask, it takes on some of the qualities of the wood. Most vineyards age their balsamic vinegar for anywhere from 3-25 years, sometimes moving each vinegar from one cask to another to give it different qualities. While the vinegar ages, some of it evaporates and the liquid becomes much sweeter. Finally, fresh grape musts are added to the vinegar as it is bottled to complete the production process.
Truly fine balsamic vinegar comes from a vineyard and does not contain any ingredients other than grapes and musts. However, some major manufacturers include high fructose corn syrup and other agents to sweeten their vinegar. Additives only improve the taste of low-quality balsamic vinegars that have not been properly aged.
Many cooks believe that the longer a vinegar ages, the more complex its taste. Aging is an important part of creating a high-quality balsamic vinegar, and in Europe, each vinegar’s label clearly displays its age. In the United States, many vinegars only list their ages on their back labels, but imported vinegar often uses the color-coded aging label used in the EU. Many connoisseurs also check vineyard and other factors, but anyone can find a great vinegar after understanding the product’s aging process.
To choose a great balsamic vinegar, look for a product that has aged in a fine wood barrel for at least 3-5 years. Make sure that it does not contain any additives by checking the ingredients listed on the back of the bottle. Buy from a reputable retailer and sample different types of vinegar to enjoy different experiences. From its ingredients to its production process, balsamic vinegar shares many qualities with fine wine, and you can explore excellent taste combinations by pairing the right vinegar with pasta, bread, vegetables, salad and more.