Balsamic Vinegar

Words Vicki Ravlich-Horan, Images Ashlee DeCaires

Growing up I think there were only two types of vinegar in my parents’ pantry, malt and white. In comparison, my pantry contains a whole shelf of vinegars – white wine, red wine, chardonnay, sherry, rice, Chinese black vinegar… OK, so my pantry may not be a good example, but I bet yours contains at least a few different vinegars, and one of these is likely to be balsamic, a vinegar now common place but unheard of in New Zealand 50 years ago. So common, balsamic even has its own TikTok craze, where a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar is added to sparkling water for a so-called healthy Coke alternative.

I recently got chatting to Liz from Vetro Tauranga. We were standing in the vinegar aisle, and she was showing me their new range of Carandini balsamic vinegars and glazes, and I discovered there was a lot more to know about balsamic vinegars.

Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale

Traditional, authentic balsamic vinegar can only come from Reggio Emilia and Moden in Italy. Like so many traditional foods from Europe that are steeped in history but loved the world over, balsamic vinegar is controlled by a set of rules to protect it from fakes as well as good imitations.

Authentic balsamic vinegar will be labelled Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale and will have a D.O.P (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) stamp. To conform to these EU rules, traditional balsamic vinegar can only be made from grape must (juice) from grapes grown in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions and contains no other ingredients.

The grape must is boiled in huge cauldrons outdoors over open flame to reduce its volume and concentrate its sugars. It is then fermented in a series of wooden barrels that successively get smaller. This process, which uses barrels made from various woods, takes a minimum of 12 years and allows the vinegar to acquire complex flavours, mellowing its acidity while also becoming more concentrated and have a syrupy consistency.

This long and complex process is also why traditional balsamic vinegar is expensive and shouldn’t be wasted by using to cook with. Heat will destroy the unique bouquet while adding oil or other ingredients to make a dressing will sully the precious flavours.

Instead, use this prized vinegar as a drizzle where it will shine. Drizzle over fresh strawberries or parmesan cheese, over a risotto, or a creamy dessert like panna cotta or vanilla ice cream.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Don’t confuse these bottles with the traditional balsamic; it’s a completely different process, and thus price point.

For centuries it has been a farmhouse practice to mix concentrated grape must with wine vinegar and some aged vinegar to make a vinegar for everyday cooking.

This is what “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” is, a vinegar made from a mix of grape must and wine vinegar, produced at an industrial scale, to meet global demand for balsamic vinegar. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI (Protected Geographic Indication or sometimes IPG) must still conform to a set of guidelines to ensure its quality.

The culture and tradition of balsamic vinegar is so important that the Italian government applied for and received a Protected Geographic Indication from the European Union. This means that if a bottle has the words Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI (or IPG) on the label, and a special seal from the EU, the vinegar must conform to a strict set of production guidelines. These include: The grape must has to come from grapes grown in the Emilio Romana Region in Italy, and the vinegar must be produced and bottled by qualified producers in the Modena region. The end product needs to contain a minimum 20% concentrated grape must.

The amount of grape must is important as this will determine the taste of the balsamic vinegar.  Unfermented grape must is sweet, while the wine vinegar is acidic, thus the more must the balsamic vinegar has the sweeter it will be. Armed with this knowledge you can determine which balsamic vinegar you want, depending on how you are going to use it.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is meant to be used as an everyday vinegar. Lighter, tart balsamic, i.e., those with less grape must are best for using in a vinaigrette or deglazing a pan. I love to drizzle over roast vegetables or the likes of barbecued zucchini. The sweeter, more syrupy vinegars are better for use in marinades and sauces and to drizzle over dishes as a finishing sauce.

The policing of aged balsamic vinegars has proved problematic, so there are only two classifications. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena must be aged for a minimum of two months in wood barrels. Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena must be aged for a minimum of three years, also in wood barrels.

Balsamic Vinegar

There is nothing stopping someone making a delicious balsamic vinegar outside of Modena. It just can’t have the label. And while there are many producers around the world making perfectly delicious versions of balsamic vinegar, there are also many creating cheap and nasty ones! You can spot these by checking the ingredient list. If it contains sweeteners and thickeners and makes no mention of grape must, this is little more than a dark vinegar and you might be better off using a sherry or red wine vinegar.

White Balsamic

White balsamic is balsamic vinegar made with grape must that has been boiled at a low enough temperature so the sugars in the grape juice are not allowed to caramelise and colour the vinegar. White balsamic doesn’t have the flavour that comes with the caramelisation and is thus less complex than regular balsamic vinegar.

Use white balsamic when you don’t want the vinegar to impart a dark colour in or on the food you are preparing, like in a dressing or to deglaze grilled asparagus.

Balsamic Glazes

Balsamic glaze (or balsamic syrup) is reduced balsamic vinegar, often with added sugar and thickeners. It’s meant to mimic traditional balsamic vinegar, but at a fraction of the cost. Back in my catering days (early 2000s), we would do this by boiling balsamic vinegar with brown sugar and would then use this as a flourish on the plate.

While the zig zag of balsamic as a garnish may have disappeared, the range of ready-made glazes has expanded, including flavoured versions. Vetro has a range that includes white truffle, orange, and BBQ!

“My favourite by far,” Liz says, “is the Carandini Wild Berry in summer, as it just seems to work over everything – from a salad to your pavlova to a lemon tart, over a chocolate cake, summer fruits, in a marinade or as a glaze for venison. They are super versatile and add a lovely deliciousness to whatever they touch.”

Check out the full range of balsamic vinegars at Vetro Tauranga, 111 Third Avenue, and Vetro Rotorua, 1131 Amohau Street.


Lip Smacking Balsamic Recipes

Balsamic Pearls

Like air fryers, the molecular gastronomy trend never really piqued my curiosity. Sure, I’ve enjoyed a tasty foam when fine dining, but who can be faffed with that sort of thing at home? Much like I may eventually succumb and see the benefits of an air fryer, I love making these tasty pearls.

The only extra piece of kit you will need is a dropper. (I picked one up for a couple of bucks at Sweet Pea Parties). With the addition of some agar agar, you can have these impressive pearls that add a taste explosion to a simple dish like a Caprese salad.

2 cups oil (extra virgin olive, avocado, or sunflower oil are my preferences)
½ cup balsamic vinegar (use the best you can afford)
½ tsp of agar agar (available at Vetro and The Herbal Dispensary)

Place the oil in a tall glass or jug in the freezer. After the oil has been in the freezer for 15 minutes, place the vinegar and agar agar in a small pot and gently heat while whisking to dissolve the agar agar.  Bring to a boil, then take off the heat.
Take the chilled oil out of the freezer and using the dropper drop the vinegar liquid into the cold oil. The pearls will form as they hit the cold oil and fall to the bottom. Once you have used all the vinegar mixture, use a sieve to drain the oil and retrieve the balsamic pearls.

Don’t throw the oil away, you can use this again or in cooking.
The pearls will last in an airtight container for a long time in the fridge.

Note – if the olive oil is in the freezer too long it will solidify. The key is to get it as cold as possible before this happens.

Balsamic Beef Salad with Caramelised Onions

Onions caramelised in balsamic vinegar are a wonderful condiment and one of my favourite toppings on a burger or steak sammy. This salad takes that combo but instead of slowly cooking down the onions to create a chutney, they are roasted in balsamic vinegar until soft, making them a key player in this salad.

If you are using an inexpensive balsamic vinegar or one with low must levels and thus quite tart, I suggest adding a tbsp of brown sugar to the steak marinade for balance.
Serves 4

600–700g piece of rump steak (approx. 4cm thick)
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp olive or avocado oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp grainy mustard
6 medium sized red onions, peeled
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
4 tbsp olive or avocado oil
2–3 sprigs fresh thyme
salad leaves (I love rocket for this salad)
500g asparagus, ends trimmed and sliced in half*
feta or soft goat’s cheese

Make the marinade by mixing the balsamic vinegar, oil, garlic, mustard, (sugar if using), and a pinch of salt into a shallow dish that will fit your piece of steak. Place the steak on the marinade and turn a few times so it is well coated.

While the steak marinates, cut the onions in half from tip to root. Cut each half into three or four wedges, slicing through the root so that the wedges stay intact. Red onions at this time of year tend to be last season’s, so many may have started to sprout. If so, carefully remove these.

Place the onion wedges in a medium sized ovenproof dish and gently toss with the second measure of balsamic vinegar, second measure of oil, and a pinch of salt. Add the thyme and roast at 200°C for 40–50 minutes, giving them a stir 20 minutes in. They are ready when they are beautifully soft.

To cook the steak, heat a griddle pan or the BBQ until smoking hot. Sear the steak for 4–5 minutes on one side then turn and sear the other side for another 4 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to rest for 8–10 minutes. While the steak is resting, grill the asparagus.

Assemble the salad by placing a bed of lettuce leaves on the platter followed by the caramelised onion and grilled asparagus. Slice the steak and place this on top, then scatter over the cheese.

Serve as a complete meal with some crusty bread.

*When asparagus is no longer in season, blanched broccolini or green beans can be substituted.

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