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Balsamic 101

Everything you need to know

Balsamic 101

Everything you need to know

Balsamic 101

Like great wines, balsamic is aged to perfection and its cost reflects its purity and authenticity; anything from $200 to a few bucks a bottle.

If you’ve experienced the complex, sweet, woody, syrupy taste of true balsamic from the Modena or Reggio Emilia regions of Italy, you’ll know the difference between the best and lesser imposters is anything but subtle.

The aging process is the key to traditional balsamic.

The aging process or a solera could take a century to produce the purest and most delicious balsamic. Or, be as little as twelve years for lesser grades.

Micro-organisms convert grape must into vinegar (must is the freshly squeezed grape juice, skins, seeds and stems). Then a complex craft follows.

The must is reduced to half over a flame, cooled, fermented for three weeks and then aged in a series of barrels.

The must is reduced to half over a flame, cooled, fermented for three weeks and then aged in a series of barrels.

Unlike aging wine and beer in sealed barrels, balsamic is allowed to breath, resulting in evaporation. The balsamic is decanted into five ever-smaller barrels where evaporation continues, until the aging process is complete, resulting in a rich, fragrant, sticky, syrupy balsamic of concentrated flavours.

Once a year, the balsamic is taken from the smallest cask, which is filled up from the next biggest cask, and so on. The largest cask is topped up with that year’s new vinegar. A never-ending cycle of goodness.

Only approved traditional barrel woods are allowed: cherry, juniper, oak, mulberry, chestnut, ash and acacia. The balsamic producer changes out the wooden barrels every few years. Traditional balsamic is infused with a hint of the taste of the wood it’s aged in.

The longer the balsamic is allowed to age, the better the taste, and like a fine wine, the older it is the more expensive it is.

It won’t be acidic to taste but offers a mellow tartness.

Different Types of Balsamic and How to Use Them

Read the label. Traditional balsamic must pass a stringent test administered by the Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar. The council was created in the early 70’s to prevent producers from selling commercial grade as authentic balsamic. Five judges test the product before it can be labeled Traditional Balsamic vinegar.

Traditional Balsamic

  • Traditional balsamic is only created from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes. It is incredibly smooth but thick, dark brown, glossy and delicious with an appealing color and aroma.
  • There’s no culinary combination traditional balsamic can’t improve. For a real treat, splash it over fresh strawberries. Try it with vanilla pod seeds and a slice or two of mascarpone cheese. Superb on vanilla ice cream, and can replace traditional toppings. Add a splash to any meal just before serving. Or drizzle over your favourite cheese.
  • Don’t cook real balsamic. It ruins the complex bouquet and is a waste.
  • Keeps forever if stored in a cool dark place, which also preserves its fragrance of flavours.

The label also indicates the region where it’s produced, either Modena or Reggio Emilia. Traditional balsamic is always labelled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale and carries a D.O.P. (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”) stamp — a European Union certification that guarantees quality, production, and place of origin.

Recognising Traditional Balsamic by Region

Bottle caps are made of wax and have identifying numbers.

Reggio Emilia

  • Affinato: A red cap on the bottle: 12 year old
  • Vecchio: Silver Cap 15-20 year old
  • Extra Vecchio: Gold Cap 20-25 year old

Modena

  • Affinato: A white cap on the bottle: 12 year old
  • Vecchio: Silver Cap 15-20 year old
  • Extra Vecchio: Gold Cap 20-25 year old

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Because demand outstrips supply for traditional balsamic, a newer, controlled industrialized process was created in 2009 by the E.U.

I.G.P status designates the balsamic as made from a restricted 7 varieties of grapes from any region, as long as they are processed in Modena. The I.G.P stamp is yellow and blue.

  • First the vinegar is aged in vats, is NOT fermented, but matured in wooden barrels for two months or more.
  • Must contain 50% wine vinegar.
  • May contain additives like thickeners, caramel for colouring are also allowed.
  • Appearance and stickyness varies widely. A good quality test is if it’s syrupy without the addition of thickeners.
  • Tastes more like wine vinegar, but sweeter.
  • If the label says ‘aged’ it means three years minimum in a wooden barrel.
  • Because of its lower price this balsamic is often used in salad dressings and to give stews and dishes a kick of complex flabour.
  • You can cook this grade.
  • Keeps forever in a cool, dark place.

I.G.P Balsamics with stamp

Condiment Grade Balsamic

This grade can be confusing because there are so many types. Basically balsamic that can’t get a D.O.P designation could be labeled this way.

Condimento (three bottles on left). Not to be confused with White Condiment (two bottles on right) which is predominantly white wine vinegar.

  • Good “Condimento” usually carries an I.G.P stamp. “Indicazione geografica protetta”, meaning protected geographical indication.
  • Quality condimento comes in around $40 a bottle.
  • Must is the only ingredient. No additives or flavourings.
  • Some may contain a little white vinegar, but if that’s the first ingredient it’s not condimento.
  • Condiment grade balsamic is aged for less time than traditional, usually less than 12 years, typically 3-5.
  • Condiment grade has a similar taste to the traditional balsamic. But, given it’s aged shorter, the depth of flavor isn’t quite as complex.
  • A good condimento should have a stickyness to it and coat the sides of the glass. The older it’s aged, the stickier it gets and the richer the flavour.
  • Flavour-wise, condiment grade usually doesn’t have the woody notes from the barrels. But, it’s fusion of acidity, sweetness and cherry-like flavour can be enjoyed with desserts and everyday dishes, such as compotes, strawberries, risottos, in sandwiches, or added to stews and roasts, and sauces.

Beyond Balsamic

Balsamic glazes and other condiments have become all the rage these days.

Balsamic Glazes in a rainbow of flavours

Balsamic Glaze/Syrup
Has thickeners added to make it as syrupy as the real thing, but it won’t taste that way. Use to finish dishes or drizzle over cheese.

Balsamic Pearls
Little jellied balls are a perfect garnish, adding both flavour and artistic flair.

Flavoured Balsamic
Just about any flavour infuses glazes these days. Adds another layer to your dish. From vanilla, to smoked, to fruity, there’s a wide range to chose from.

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