Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
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Aceto Balsamico tradizionale
 
IN PRAISE OF BALSAMIC VINEGAR
 
 
In the family of vinegars, balsamic vinegar is to its many other cousins what diamonds are to other jewels. No other vinegar displays as much complexity—in its flavor, its consistency, and yes, even its downright beauty—as balsamic vinegar.

A tawny reddish brown in color and downright syrupy in its most aged and concentrated form, balsamic vinegar has a taste that unfolds and develops on the tongue, beguiling the taste buds with its combination of rich yet subtle sour, sweet, spicy, and mellow woodsy notes. Those characteristics have the power to vastly enhance foods graced by balsamic vinegar’s presence, winning the vinegar praise in recipes from salads to main courses, vegetable side dishes to even fruit and other desserts.
 
 
How Balsamic Vinegar is Made
 
 

To understand why balsamic vinegar is worthy of such praise, it’s important to understand how it is made. For many centuries, the vinegar has been produced in the area of Modena, Italy, just northwest of Bologna and southeast of Parma, in a region noted for its robust yet sophisticated cuisine. True balsamic vinegars come only from this area, and their labels will attest to that fact with the phrase aceto balsamico di Modena.

Contrary to what many people think, balsamic vinegar does not begin as wine like so many other vinegars do. Instead, it starts as juice that is first crushed from white Trebbiano wine grapes and sometimes other local varieties, boiled down over an open fire until it becomes an intensely sweet concentrate. That juice, in turn, is then fermented twice to transform it into a sweet-and-sour vinegar.

But that is only the beginning of the transformation that makes balsamic vinegar unlike any other. Next comes the aging process, conducted in breezy attics, during which the wine is stored and slowly evaporates in a progression of ever-smaller barrels, each made from a different aromatic wood—such as oak, cherry,chestnut, and juniper—that contributes its own subtle savor to the end product.

Modena Balsamic Vinegar
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Different producers of balsamic vinegar will vary the woods and the aging times in the barrels to produce their own distinctive styles.

Total barrel-aging time for balsamic vinegar may vary from just a year to as many as 75 years or longer, with correspondingly ever-more-concentrated flavors and thicker, more syrupy consistencies. Authentic products will include on their labels a prominent
designation of their aging time before they were bottled.
 
Buying and Storing Balsamic Vinegar
 
 
 
Products labeled “balsamic vinegar” but without mention of Modena as their origin and no designation of their age may be simply strong red wine vinegar doctored with some caramelized sugar. Buy with caution!

Once sealed in the bottle, balsamic vinegar will keep indefinitely. After opening, keep the bottle closed airtight (some come with cork stoppers, others with screw caps) and away from light in the cupboard at cool room temperature.
Cooking with Balsamic Vinegar
 
 
How you use balsamic vinegar depends on the age of the particular product you buy—and, thanks to its complexity, on the range of your imagination. It’s not uncommon for lovers of the product to keep on hand several different bottles of different ages for different uses.

Try younger balsamic vinegar in salad dressings. Its relatively lighter flavor, though still wonderfully multifaceted, won’t overwhelm fresh greens.

balsamic vinegar make great marinades for main courses. Try marinating a steak destined for the grill in a mixture of balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil. Just imagine how the vinegar’s combination of sweet, tangy, and earthy flavors will complement the flavors of beef and smoke! Or stir a few spoonfuls of balsamic into the broth in which you braise meat or poultry, adding more layers of flavor to the final sauce while the vinegar’s acidity enhances the protein’s tenderness.

With a truly fine steak hot off the grill, use a few drops of well aged balsamic as a condiment, dabbing each slice in the vinegar bite by bite. Who needs steak sauce?

Vegetables, too, benefit from a touch of balsamic vinegar. Splash a little over sliced onion during sautéing, and the vinegar’s sweetness and tang will complement the pungent root’s natural sugars as they caramelize. Other sides with a sweet aspect to their character, including carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant, gain extra character when touched with a hint of balsamic.

While balsamic vinegar’s sweetness marries with that undertone in vegetables, its acidity is the meeting point between the vinegar and certain fruits. Lightly drizzle an aged balsamic over ripe summer strawberries for one of the world’s great taste sensations. Try the vinegar, too, with pineapple, peaches, or plump fresh figs.

Don’t stop there, though. Lovers of concentrated, aged balsamic vinegar can’t resist pouring a spoonful or so of the substance over fine vanilla ice cream. The contrast between the frozen dessert’s richness and the sweet-tart vinegar’s syrupy intensity is nothing short of sublime.

Or end your meal as some people do back in balsamic vinegar home region in Italy. There, true connoisseurs will sometimes cut a bite-sized shaving of fine Parmesan cheese. Then, they’ll grace it with just a drop or two of the oldest balsamic vinegar they have and pop the combination in their mouths. The resulting medley of sensations—rich, salty, tangy, syrupy, woodsy—is so intense that the eyes involuntarily close with pleasure!

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