Back in the early 1980s, The Silver Palate changed how Americans were eating. Suddenly, everyone wanted goat cheese, arugula, and balsamic vinegar everywhere, all the time. Balsamic vinegar became one of the first foodie fads—kind of like ramps nowadays.
Before then, for thousands of years, Italians had been merrily making only a few thousand barrels a year of this precious elixir in the tiny central Italian region of Reggio Emilia. Outside of the region, it was hardly known at all. I had never heard of “balsamic vinegar” in Rome or in Tuscany, but when I moved to the US in the early 80’s, everywhere I went, people just assumed I used balsamic all the time just because it was Italian.
Italian it may have been, but like so many of Italy’s boutique and artisanal ingredients—like sun-dried tomatoes, lardo di Colonnata (cured fat back from Tuscany’s marble mountains), or colatura di Cetara (essentially fish sauce, made in the anchovy region of Cetara)—it wasn’t until modern times that anyone outside of the region really knew about it or how to use it.
With fame came demand, but traditional balsamic vinegar is made very slowly and in very small quantities. To fill the gaps in demand, unregulated factories sprang up, taking basic wine vinegar from anywhere and doctoring it with caramel and coloring to approximate the real stuff. Bottled up and sold around the world cheaply, this potion is many people’s only exposure to balsamic vinegar. It’s kind of like if everyone knew about Parmigiano Reggiano but they could only get the green cylinder cheese tubes put out by Kraft that happens to be called Parmesan.
There are similarities and they will do similar things, but one just doesn’t need to exist and the other makes you understand why anyone cares. Why should you care, you ask? Read on to find out which balsamic vinegar is right for you, and how to make the most of each type.
Around the time that balsamic vinegar was gaining popularity, the Italians were struggling with ways to identify artisanal traditional products, to set out a definition of what made a traditional food product that product. Like wine regions, consortiums were created to define regional ingredients. Parmigiano Reggiano has one of the oldest consortiums that regulates how the cheese is made from where the cows live, to what they eat, to how the milk is heated in what vessel. Once the cheese is made, the consortium tastes it and allows the producer to label it as Parmigiano Reggiano.
The consortium for aceto balsamico tradizionale is one of the strongest and most definitive around. To be labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio:
- the grapes have to be a specific local varietal (mostly trebbiano with various other obscure native varieties allowed as well),
- the vinegar has to be cooked in a certain vessel,
- and it has to be aged in the distinctive wooden barrel system, where each year the youngest vinegar goes from the largest wooden cask to the next smaller cask made of a different kind of wood. The vinegar in that cask will have just been half emptied into a smaller barrel and so on down to the last cask—usually six to nine casks down.
Once the vinegar has achieved 12 years of age, it is allowed to be presented to the consorzio, which is the final arbitrator of what can and cannot be called aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or Reggio DOP. If it is allowed, the vinegar will be bottled up into extremely distinct small squat bottles with a bulbous base holding just 100 milliliters (about 3 ounces) and selling for around $100 for the youngest, 12-year-old version. Older vinegars that are 18 to 20 or even 25 years old are labeled either oro (gold) or extra vecchio (old) and they will cost even more: around $225.
So why would anyone spend that much money on just 3 ounces of vinegar? The vinegar really is that special and that delicious—thick, profoundly sweet-tart—but also, it keeps just about forever in a well-sealed bottle.
One of those squat bottles will easily last in a home kitchen for a year, so really it’s like buying a very expensive pair of shoes. By the time you are done with them, they will have lasted so long that they actually wind up being frugal compared to cheap pair of shoes you wear for a season and then throw out!
You also use very little at a time: It isn’t an ingredient that should disappear into a dish, but rather one that should have equal pairing with one other equally spectacular ingredient that will match and reflect the vinegar. It’s the kind of pantry ingredient I like to always have on hand because it allows me to take a really simple ingredient and turn it into something knock out glamorous for a dinner party or even just unexpected guests.
On something salty.
* Drizzle a few drops on perfect chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and you have the perfect aperitivo
On something also sweet.
* Bring home some really special local strawberries, slice them up and drizzle a few drops over them
* Do the same with peaches or melon
* Drizzle over raspberries with a little dusting of turbinado sugar for crunch
On something creamy—the combination of sweet and just slightly sour amplifies the creaminess of the sweet.
- Drizzle over panna cotta
- Or vanilla ice cream
- Drop one drop in the bottom of a glass of Champagne
- In Italy, people even will taste a few drops just plain on their tongue after dinner as a palate cleanser and digestif
But what do you do if you want to cook with balsamic vinegar, drizzle it over salad, or add a big slug to a slow braise? You’ll use balsamic condiment (condimento balsamico), which can either be:
Because in most cases it's younger than the tradizionale and doesn't go through the same vigorous testing, condimento will be much cheaper. Generally, you are going to look for a younger, lighter condiment to use in cooking and a darker richer one for salad dressing or vegetables. In order to pick out condimento at the market, look on the bottle specifically for the word "condimento."
Finally, because every business wants to produce enough product to match demand, we come to the most controversial grade of balsamic vinegar: Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP. It has fewer restrictions than aceto balsamico tradizionale DOP. It can be made from any grapes really, not just local varieties, and it only has to be aged for two months in the region of Modena.
Obviously, that allows for a great deal of variety in the final product—some of the people I most respect in the world of Italian gastronomy swear that all Aceto Balsamico IGP di Modena is garbage. But some say it's a good option, and not as bad as that seven-dollar bottle from the supermarket that really has nothing to do with the traditional product. My opinion? If it has the IGP seal, it’s probably good, but personally I’m sticking with tradizionale and condimento.
If you find all this confusing and hard to follow, take heart! I have studied, cooked, and eaten Italian food professionally for 25 years and I had to really root around talking with importers and experts to even begin to make sense of it all. When I lived in Italy, we used to joke that Italy is an Anarchist society, but sometimes I think it might really be true.