• September - 27 - 1995


Parting Can Be Such Sweet Sour 

Many May Abandon Their Vinegar When They Learn It's Not Really Balsamic

  • Cook's Illustrated


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
These vinegars received uniformly positive comments from all nine tasters.

Compagnia Del Montale Aceto Balsamico di Modena, 250 ml. 

Balsamic vinegar is the trendy condiment of choice for everything from salad dressings to sauces, However, most Americans would be surprised to learn they have lasted the real thing. Even more shocking, balsamic vinegar is more popular here than in Italy, where its culinary are actually quite limited. Contrary to what the chef at your local restaurant may think, balsamic vinegar is not Italy's answer to soy sauce. Until 20 years ago, balsamic vinegar was an obscure condiment made at home by wealthy families in Emilia-Romagna region of north central Italy. This artisanal product starts with the of local white grapes, which is then for decades in wood casks, of vinegar were often passed down from one generation to the next; sometimes as part of a dowry . Production has always been extremely limited, and costs have always been prohibitive. Traditional balsamic vinegar is a labour of love, not a moneymaking venture. All this changed when "savvy" Italian marketers realized that Americans would buy amounts off sweet-and sour, commercially made balsamic vinegar, Although fever than 10000 bottles of traditional balsamic vinegar are released every year, annual American now stands at several million bottles. To turn a family tradition into an international business, manufacturers first had to create the supply to meet the demand. The solution ? Sell a bastardized product. Most commercial balsamic vinegar on the market today.

The quality has declined in equal relation to its increasing popularity, she warns. "While five or six drops of the real stuff can give more pleasure than any other food I know" Kasper notes that most of the balsamic vinegar Americans buy is "inferior". Since there is no legal definition for aceto balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar of Modena), even shoppers who read can end up with bad balsamic. Many cheap brands are simply red wine vinegar with caramel added for colour and sweetness. Some brands that say “di Modena on the label are actually made in other cities, most often Naples. Liven among expensive commercial brands, there is a wide range of manufacturing techniques; some companies employ industrial, while others blend traditional production, like aging in a of wood casks, with modern technologies. To make sense of this muddle, we held a tasting of balsamic vinegars in a range of price categories. We included one traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena, which set us back $150 for 100 ml (just over Three ounces); the leading commercial brands that sell in supermarkets for $ 3 to $ 4 per 500 ml bottle; as well as a number of more expensive commercial brands ($6 to $30 per 250 ml bottle) that try to duplicate the quality of traditional balsamico at a fraction of the cost. The tasting was designed to answer one basic question: Does more money buy better vinegar? With few exceptions, our panel found that quality and price do go hand-in-hand. Most of the higher-priced brands displayed a gentle sweetness combined with a low to moderate acidity; a complex, woody bouquet; a flavour reminiscent of fruit; and a dense, syrupy consistency-all qualities revered in traditional balsamic vinegar. While few tasters would confuse even the best commercial products with the real thing, several If this is the good news, the bad news is that supermarket brands are generally overly acidic and devoid of character. In fact, the two leading brands, which between them account for more than 75 percent of U.S. sales, finished last and next-to last in the tasting. Our advice, then, is to visit your local gourmet store or pick up the phone when buying balsamic vinegar. Expect to spend $15 to $30 for an outstanding vinegar.

If $15 seems like a lot for vinegar, remember that a little goes a long way. Even quality commercial balsamic vinegar are not used straight in salad dressings in Italy but are usually combined with aged red wine vinegar. Other traditional uses Sprinkling over asparagus, sliced Parmesan cheese, or vanilla gelato require very small quantities. Italians do not generally cook with balsamic vinegar because heat destroys its subtle qualities. To use balsamic vinegar in savoury foods, add a few drops to a sauce just before serving, or drizzle some over a piece of grilled fish. Before reaching the public, all authentic balsamic vinegar have been aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of small casks made from various wood and evaluated by one of the two consortiums of producers. The larger one is located in Modena, then in Reggio. After passing a rigorous taste test, vinegars receive a consortium, seal and are packaged in distinctive bottles. Only vinegars that meet all the requirements may be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The key word is tradizionale, which signals that the vinegar contains 100 percent cooked, aged, white grape must (what remains in the winemaking process after grapes have been crushed, fermented with the pulp, stems, seed sand skins for a brief time, and then poured off). So why do three ounces of traditional balsamic vinegar cost $150 ? The answer is low yield and high storage costs. An acre of a typical. To make 800 gallons of wine vinegar. Once the juice from those same grapes has been cooked down and aged, during which time massive evaporation occurs, just 20 or 30 gallons of balsamic vinegar remain. The high storage costs one expert said, just keeping water, that long is expensive add to the final price, which is rarely less than $60 per bottle and can climb to $200. Is any vinegar worth $200 ?

The traditional balsamic vinegar in our tasting was the clear favourite of almost every panellist. Its high viscosity, intense but pleasant sweetness, heady aroma and minimal acidity easily distinguished it from commercial vinegar. But these characteristics also restrict its uses. Wealthy Italians sip traditional balsamic after dinner or sprinkle a few drops over sliced strawberries. For most other culinary purposes, a good commercial balsamic vinegar is fine. Thirteen commercial vinegar s were tasted blind and are listed in order of preference based on secures awarded by our judges in the accompanying box,. We also tasted one traditional balsamic vinegar, which was so clearly superior to the commercial vinegars and so much more expensive ($50 an ounce) that we did not include it in the box. All samples were poured into small cups and sipped directly from the cups or from demitasse spoons. Water and bread were available to the testers palates. The tasting was held at Felidia restaurant in New York City and was conducted by the author; Mark Bittman, executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated; Anna Teresa Callen, Julia della croce, Nick Malgieri and Michele Scicolone, all leading italian cooking teachers and cookbook autors; Joanna Saliani, manager of Felidia; Philip Teverow, buyer for Dean & Deluca, and Bill Toll, principal of taste of the world and an importer of balsamic vinegar for 10 years. With the exception of the Cavalli, Rienzi and Vine Hill Farms vinegar. Prices are based on purchases in supermarkets and gourmet stores in New York and Connecticut or on mail-order sources where indicated.


The Balsamic Vinegar Testing:

The rusults of tasting with comments of the panel

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


These vinegars received uniformly positive comments from all nine tasters.

  • 1

    Compagnia Del Montale Aceto Balsamico di Modena, $30/250 ml.
    Six first place votes plus a second and third made this entry the clear winner. Chewy texture and dynamite flavor that was described as perfume and “sweet with very smooth acidity” so this vinegar is the winner. Available at Dean & Deluca (3276 M St. NY; 1-000-221-7714).

  • 2

    Cavalli condimento, $15-$17/250 ml.
    The only entry that comes from Reggio, italy’s second city for Balsamic vinegar production, snared two first-place voles plus two seconds and four lower votes. Tasters described it as “quile sweet and tart at once” with a strong “grape” or “prune” flavor and “medium viscosity”. Overall, a “pleasant, well-balanced” vinegar. Avallable at Dean & Deluca, sullon Place Gourmet and other gourmet stores.

  • 3

    Cibo di Lidia aceto balsamico di Modena $20/250 ml
    Although this vinegar recolved only one first-place vote, all nine tasters ranked it among thair favorites. The adjective “mild” and “mallow” best describe this “fruilly” five-year old vinegar with “good density”.
    Available from Cibo di Lidia (243 E.58th St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 212-758-1479) 

RECOMMENDED


These vinegar were well regard by a majority of tasters.

  • 4

    Fiorucci riserva balsamic vinegar, $5,79/250 ml.
    Tthis vinegar has an “enticing berry flavor” with “strong wood” and “oarthy caracter” that was described as “chocolate” or “like old barrels”. A few tasters felt it was “too harsh”, but it is on excellent cholce given the low price. Avallable in supermarkets.

  • 5

    Fini balsamic vinegar, $10,50/250 ml.
    This vinegar was “not nearly as sweet” as the top vinegars and “perceptibly thinner” and recelved some complaints that its “acidity is too much”, However, many panellsts liked the “aromatic”, “woody nose” on this “round” vinegar that was judged “pleasant but not very complex”. Avallable at Dean & Deluca and Sulton Place Gourmet stores and by mail from Williams Sonoma (1-800-541-2233)

  • 6

    Masserie di sant’Eramo balsamic vinegar of Modena, $8,95/250 ml.
    This “fragrant” vinegar reminiscent of “yeast” and “wood” gels high marks for its “agreable balance between sweetness and acidity” and “average viscosity”. Although “pleasant” this vinegar lacks the complexity and nuances of the top cholchos. Still a great value. Avallable at Dean & Deluca, Sulton Place and other gourmet stores. 

NOT RECOMMENDED


These vinegars were poorly regarded by most tasters.

  • 7

    Giuseppe Giusti gran deposito aceto balsamico di Modena, $15,99/250 ml.
    Although a fev tasters gave this vinegar decent marks, with commonts like “winey, if too acidic” and “pungent”, the majority felt it was “harsh” “sour” and “fake”. So overal complained of a “chemical quality” Avallable at Dean & Deluca and other gourmet stores.

  • 8

    Modenaceti balsamic vinegar of modena, $3,39/500 ml.
    “Comparatively little flavor” was the consensus about this “watery” vinegar. Because of its “extremely sharp vinegar quality” that “burned the back of the throat”, several tasters felt it was “indistinguishable from cheap red wine vinegar”. Avallable in supermarkets and Sulton Place Gourmet stores.

  • 9

    Mazzetti balsamic vinegar of Modena, $3,39/500 ml.
    “Sharp” , “thin” and “acidic” sums up the panel’s lake on this “watery” and “harsh” vinegar. “Flat and not as others” and “decent, if too mild” was as charitable as our tasters got. Avallable in supermarkets.

  • 10

    Rienzi balsamic vinegar of Modena, $1’90/500 ml
    Despite what the tabel says, the gar actually comes from Naples. “Lots of acid and little else” was the panel’s assessment of this teast-expensive entry. Avallable in supermarkets. 

NOT RECOMMENDED


These vinegars were poorly regarded by most tasters.

  • 11

    Aceto balsamico di sonoma,$17/250 ml.
    Althougth made from 100 percent must and aged for six years in wood, the only balsamic vinegar made in this country did not show well. “Mild but one-dimensional” whit “decent, if not overwhelming” body. The acid was “In check at first taste” but then “overwhelmed” the palate with “excessive sharpness”. Avallable by mail from Vine Hill Farms (Box 153, Sonoma, Cell. 95476; 707-664-6699).

  • 12

    Duke’s balsamic vinegar of Modena, $3’89/500 ml.
    The second-best-selling brand in the U.S. comes from a large Modena operation called Grosoli, which packages many private-tabel vinegars as well. The aujectives “sharp”, “thin” and “coarse” sum up the panel’s judgment of this vinegar that is “short on everything but color”. Avallable in supermarkets.

  • 14

    Monari Federzoni balsamic vinegar of Modena, $3,79/500 ml.
    The best-selling brand in this country (with at teast two-thirds of the market) was the only entry to recelve no score at all. “Bitter” and “caustic” with a “burning finish” was the consensus. It “made me contort my face” wrote one taster. Avallable at Dean & Deluca and superm.

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