The words balsamic vinegar are enough to jump-start the salivary glands, as the brain recalls this intense ingredient hitting the tongue's sweet and sour spots to create a lively, but mellow, impression. Vinegar has been music for the mouth throughout history. Centuries ago, the ingredient was tangoing with the tongues of ancient Mesopotamia, Palestine, and other Near East territories.
In Italy, balsamic vinegar has also been used as a stomach remedy, but tasters across time have primarily sought it out for its flavor. Translated as "like balsam," the word balsamic refers to the vinegar's thick, aromatic qualities comparable in texture and smell to the resin from balsam trees.
The balsamic production process is similar to that of wine. It starts with such grape varieties as Lambrusco, Trebbiano, Berzemino, Spergola, and Ancelotta grown in Italy's Emilia Romagna region around Modena. To attain a rounded flavor, a combination of grape varieties is crushed to release the tannins in the skin. The pomace is boiled down to yield a sweet and intensely fruity concentrate of cooked must. In older traditions, wine and uncooked must were used in combination with a longer aging process. But since the late 19th century, cooked must is used alone.
The must is blended with wine vinegar and stored in tanks of larch wood with just enough air to allow oxidization to start the 15-20 day fermentation. Concurrently, bacteria consume the converted alcohol to slowly transform a portion into acetic acid.
The vinegar is then aged in selected wooden barrels—three years is considered the minimum for top quality. While younger vinegars are much more affordable, rare and expensive 50- and 100-year-old balsamics can be found.
Once bottled, a seal depicting a bunch of grapes veiled by a cobweb and crossed with a padlock—a former symbol of an ancient family recipe in Modena—informs purchasers that the formulation, mellowing, and aging processes were carried out according to strict standards. Balsamic vinegar produced in other parts of Italy, as well as other countries, is not subjected to the same standards.
While inhabitants of Modena drink balsamic vinegar as an after-dinner digestif, its more common uses are as a salad dressing, a flavor enhancer for vegetables and fruit, or a marinade or sauce ingredient for meat and fish. Caramelized sweet onions basted with balsamic and butter highlight many pasta and meat dishes. A sweetened balsamic vinegar sauce adds a fillip of flavor to fresh strawberries and dessert toppings. Reducing ordinary balsamic vinegar to a syrupy consistency can mimic the full flavor of a well-aged product.
When purchasing, the color should be a shiny dark brown, almost black; texture should be thick enough that if swirled in a glass, it will coat the sides. The aroma should be fragrant with a harmonic acidity that is intense but not overpowering, while the best flavor is a balance of sweet and sour that leaves fullness in the mouth.
Balsamic vinegar is packaged in bottles ranging from 8.5 oz. -33.8 oz.; 5-L quantities are sold in a jug and a bag-in-box. Varieties available include premium, vintage, organic, and glaze. Balsamic glaze, abetted by squeeze bottle packaging, allows the creation of fancy plate decorations.