Balsamic vinegar is an ingredient relatively new to American cuisine, but in just one generation has become the best-selling vinegar in the U.S. Produced in northern Italy for centuries, it was so highly prized that it was often included in wedding dowries, to be used one valuable drop at a time. Today the grocery store routinely stocks a dozen different brands of balsamic vinegar, each with a different price. How do we choose?
Traditional balsamic vinegar begins with late harvest grapes, those with a high sugar content, usually a white Trebbiano grape grown in Emilia Romagna. The grape “must,” composed of raisin-sweet juice, skins and seeds, is boiled in open vats to reduce the volume by half, then stored in uncovered wooden barrels of graduated sizes in an insulated attic. Over time, the liquid evaporates, further concentrating the flavor in the portion that remains. Each year, much of the contents of each barrel is transferred to the next smaller barrel before the new must is added to the largest, beginning the aging process all over again. A liter or two of the precious vinegar is taken from the smallest barrel and bottled. This is the traditional balsamic vinegar, aged a minimum of 10-12 years, complex in flavor, sweet and slightly sour, and utterly delicious. It is sold in 3 oz. bottles, an inverted tulip shape for Reggio Emilia and a ball-shape with a neck for Modena, Italy. A 50 year old vinegar can sell for $500.
U.S. commercial balsamic vinegar is not governed by standards formalized into law, as it is in Italy. It usually starts with red wine vinegar, which is both colored and sweetened with caramel. Directly from the bottle, there is no comparison to the pricey vinegar. For cooking or for vinaigrettes, less expensive vinegar is fine. To concentrate the flavor, reduce the inexpensive variety in a small saucepan, which will render it thick, sweet and syrupy. The more expensive traditional vinegar tastes best uncooked, used sparingly as a drizzle over fresh fruit and cheese, over vegetable dishes, grilled meats and fish, or a few drops on a bowl of soup. A good commercial balsamic vinegar should be dark, thick and sweet, with enough acidity to balance the sweetness.
Arugula Salad with Balsamic Vinegar Serves 4
4-6 cups arugula, washed and stemmed
¼ cup good olive oil
1 tbsp. traditional balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced thin
1 jar artichoke hearts in brine, sliced thin
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
shaved Pecorino Romano cheese
4 slices paper-thin Prosciutto
Combine the olive oil, balsamico, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Toss the arugula in a bowl with the dressing, and arrange on salad plates. Toss the mushrooms and artichoke hearts in the same bowl with the remaining dressing and arrange equal portions over the arugula. Top with tomatoes, shaved cheese, and draped prosciutto, and serve.
To taste the eye-opening difference in balsamic vinegars, stop into Rocky Mountain Olive Oil Company at 114 North College Ave.