Friday, 25 July 2014

Know Your Ingredients: Balsamic Vinegar

Image courtesy of Creative Commons 
Sweet, fruity, tart -- Balsamic vinegar is highly prized by the modern chef for it's capacity to "wake up" subtle flavours in salads and vegetables. 

Traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) is a wickedly expensive ingredient. Prices can range from $50.00 for a 100 ml bottle and up, and when we say up, we’re talking in the $500 a bottle range. It’s been passed from generation to generation as a family heirloom, been gifted to emperors and been included as a valuable asset in women’s dowries. As an ingredient, this is just too expensive to use willy-nilly in cooking. In fact, it is usually reserved to be sparingly drizzled on a finished dish. Why the cost? First of all, it’s an expensive condiment to make. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is labour intensive and it’s a long time before the producer sees any return on his labour. To start, t is made from a special breed of grapes grown in Italy. The grapes are boiled in copper vessels until the volume is reduced to 30 – 50% of the original quantity. The remainder is transferred into wooden barrels and aged. Over the course of the year, some of the water component of the vinegar evaporates through the pores of the wood, concentrating the vinegar’s flavour. Every year, the vinegar is transferred to a progressively smaller barrel made from a different wood to pick up some of the flavour characteristics of that wood. The approved woods are oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash. Young balsamic vinegar is aged three to five years. Very old balsamic vinegar is a minimum of 12 years old and up to 150 years old. We can promise you that anything over 25 years old is blisteringly expensive.

Fortunately, for those of us who lack the budget to procure the traditional stuff, there are alternatives. It’s usually labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Moderna”.  While there are no defined standard for commercial grades of balsamic vinegar, they are usually some mixture of wine vinegar, sugar, water, preservatives, caramel and flavouring agents and thickening agents such as guar gum or cornstarch to imitate the traditional vinegar’s texture. This inexpensive, easily available ingredient can be sourced in any grocery store for much lower prices than the traditional vinegar. Expect to pay between $3 and $10 a bottle. This is the stuff to splash on salads or cook with – it makes a great braising liquid.

You can also “age” it by reducing it with a little brown sugar. Gently boil ½ cup of commercial grade balsamic vinegar for 5 minutes to thicken it. Continue cooking with 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar for another 2 minutes to further reduce the mixture until it's about half of its original volume. Remove from the heat and allow to cool -- store in the fridge in an airtight container. You’ll have about ¼ cup of the reduction that can be used in braises or dabbed on steamed vegetables. 

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