September / 27 / 1995
Parting Can Be Such Sweet Sour
Many May Abandon Their Vinegar When They Learn It's Not Really Balsamic
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, the 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
These vinegars received uniformly positive comments from all nine tasters.
Compagnia Del Montale Aceto Balsamico di Modena, 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-y and “sweet with very little acidity” sol this vinegar apart from the pack. Available of Dean & Deluca (3276 M St. NY; 1-000-221-7714).