Magazine article Sunset

Splash on the Balsamic

Magazine article Sunset

Splash on the Balsamic

Article excerpt

Well-made balsamic vinegar is like no other vinegar. At its best, it has the character of a fine aged port--complex, sweet, mellow, intense, and fragrant. And, as with port, you can spend a fortune or find a bargain.

Balsamic vinegar made by the ancient artisanal process--aceto balsamico tradizionale--begins with the fall harvest of wine grapes in Italy's Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces. Pressed grape juice (called must) is cooked slowly in big kettles until it is reduced by half. Then it is fermented and, finally, aged for at least 12 years. Quality is controlled by a government-approved consortium of balsamic vinegar producers. To be classified as traditional and receive the consortium seal, a balsamic vinegar must be produced in one of these two provinces.

The supply of traditional aged vinegars is limited; they are usually found in good Italian delicatessens or specialty food stores and command high prices--a 100-ml. bottle can go for $50 to $700. Because the flavor is so concentrated, it takes only a few drops to add magic to foods. In Italy, traditional balsamic is used as a condiment.

But most balsamic vinegars from these provinces belong in another, less costly, category. These vinegars, called industriale in Italy, are often made by producers of traditional balsamic. Industriale, or commercial, vinegars are not subject to controls, and they range widely in method of production, quality, and price (35 cents to $4 per ounce).

Some are blends of traditionally made balsamic vinegar and other ingredients, such as high-quality wine vinegar, reduced must, and caramel. Generally, but not always, a higher price reflects longer aging and/or a higher proportion of traditional balsamic vinegar in the product.

Commercial balsamic vinegar is more overtly acidic than the traditional. It suits salad dressings and marinades and works well in cooking, such as in sauces. Use the smoother, longer-aged commercial vinegars as you would liqueurs, to add flavor accents.

The quality of vinegars labeled balsamic but not produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia is uneven. Most are wine vinegars blended with commercial balsamic and are quite usable. Since they tend to be inexpensive, try several brands to find one you like.

FAST, FLAVORFUL IDEAS

Radish appetizer. Dip radishes in balsamic vinegar.

Green salads. Dress mixed salad greens with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste. …

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