Aceto Balsamico – The Black Gold Of Italy

Aceto balsamico is part of the basic equipment in many kitchens. Nevertheless, very few people have ever tried a real Aceto balsamico. Here you can find out how this can be and how you can recognize high-quality balsamic vinegar.

Aceto balsamico – as a digestif, a balm for digestion

Aceto balsamico – often simply called balsamico – is a vinegar that is traditionally made from grape must. It is particularly popular in salad dressings or for refining desserts – for example in combination with strawberries, pears, or ice cream.

The vinegar is characterized by its dark brown color and its sweet and sour aroma. It originally comes from Italy – the word translated means balsamic vinegar. According to legend, a visitor to the Duke of Canossa (a powerful nobleman in 11th-century Italy) tasted the Aceto balsamico and then said that it was not vinegar but a medicine (a balm) – presumably because it was so beneficial and acted on digestion.

Because the traditional balsamic vinegar is aromatically so mature that they were originally drunk as a digestif (which of course you can still do today). Instead, you slurp a teaspoon of it at the end of a meal.

However, you should not drink larger amounts, because then the acid could irritate the stomach instead of promoting digestion. The real balsamic vinegar is also so expensive that it is automatically used very sparingly. Some cooks even put it in a spray bottle to use very little.

On the other hand, the name could also go back to its fragrance, since the word balsam describes the resin of the balsam trees and balsam plants, which smells fragrant. However, balsamic vinegar is not made from these plants.

The traditional production of Aceto balsamico

The highest quality and most expensive Aceto balsamico is still made in the traditional way exclusively in Italy. The starting product for this balsamic vinegar are locally grown grapes. Lambrusco, Ancellotta or Trebbiano grapes are usually used. These are first processed into must (freshly pressed grape juice) and then in four steps into balsamic vinegar:

  • First, the grape must is cooked in a large pan over an open fire for 12 to 24 hours. This thickens it so that only about 30 to 70 percent remains.
  • In the next step, the grape must is poured into barrels for alcoholic fermentation. There, yeasts break down the sugar naturally contained in the boiled must into alcohol.
  • The alcohol is then broken down into acetic acid by acetic acid bacteria (primarily Acetobacter and Gluconobacter bacteria) and oxygen. It takes about a year for steps two and three to be completed.
  • Then the Aceto balsamico is transferred to wooden casks for aging. He will remain there for at least 12 years. However, every few months it is transferred to a barrel made of a different type of wood, and there is even a certain order that has to be followed. However, every manufacturer has their own preferences as to which wood gives the Aceto balsamico the best taste. These different wooden barrels contribute to the specific balsamic aroma. Since the liquid is constantly evaporating through the wood, the vinegar becomes more and more viscous and less and less in quantity. In order to fill the barrels again and again when decanting, older vinegar is always added to the young vinegar.

Balsamic vinegar usually comes from mass production

However, not every balsamic vinegar is made traditionally. Only 10,000 liters of more than 90 million liters of Italian balsamic vinegar are obtained this way each year. The majority of commercially available Aceti balsamic (pronounced “Atscheti balsamitschi”) is mass-produced (from 8 euros per liter in discount stores).

However, there are other qualities between real balsamic vinegar and the mass product, so balsamic vinegar is now available in almost every price range.

The quality differences in balsamic vinegar

It is not easy for the layperson to recognize and assess the differences in the quality of balsamic vinegar. However, the division into four categories is very helpful when buying high-quality vinegar:

  • Traditionally made balsamic vinegar
  • Balsamic vinegar from Modena
  • Balsamic vinegar and vinegar
  • condition

It should be mentioned, however, that the categories are not entirely clear-cut.

Highest level of quality: Traditionally produced Aceto balsamico

Traditionally produced Aceto balsamico is produced using the production method described above – it is considered a protected cultural asset and is therefore strictly controlled. It has a thick, almost syrupy consistency, a distinctive sweet and sour taste, and a strong smell.

It may only be produced in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. These products are sold exclusively under the following two names:

  • Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena DOP
  • Traditional balsamic vinegar of Reggio Emilia DOP

The DOP seal (Denominazione di origine protetta) identifies products with a protected designation of origin (origine = origin; protetta = protected). The balsamic vinegar with the DOP seal is evaluated by an official group of experts. Only when they taste above the standard can they be filled into specially designed bottles and finally sold. You must meet the following quality standards:

  • may only be made from grape must
  • Additives are not allowed
  • Must have aged 12 years in barrel
  • Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena must have an acidity of at least 5%
  • Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia must have an acidity of at least 4.5%

Second highest quality level: Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP
The traditional Aceti balsamic from the above category should not be confused with the Aceto Balsamico di Modena. This usually tastes a little sourer and is more liquid than the traditional balsamic vinegar, as it matures for a shorter period of time. It bears the IGP seal (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) – also a seal for a protected designation of origin.

The Aceto Balsamico di Modena with the IGP seal must also meet certain quality standards. However, these are not quite as high as those of traditional balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar of Modena IGP:

  • must be produced in the Italian province of Modena or Reggio Emilia
  • only has to consist of 5 to 20 percent grape must – the rest can be wine vinegar
  • must spend at least 60 days in the barrel
  • must have an acidity of more than 6%
  • may contain a maximum of two percent caramel (E150a-d) for coloring

Unfortunately, there are many manufacturers who also call their products Aceto Balsamico di Modena, although they do not have an IGP seal and therefore do not meet the quality standards. When shopping, look carefully to see whether the addition “IGP” is on the bottle.

Balsamic vinegar and vinegar

Now the categories are becoming a bit vague and can be less clearly distinguished from each other. Because Aceto balsamico without the above-mentioned additional designations can actually be called vinegar – there are no quality specifications or controls in this category. There are only quality specifications for vinegar in general, which an Aceto Balsamico must also comply with if it wants to belong to the category of vinegar.

  • Acidity must be between 5 and 12%
  • must contain 5 to 10 g acetic acid per 100 ml in the EU
  • may contain additives
  • does not have to be aged (but can of course)

Vinegar can be made from anything that can be processed into acetic acid. Accordingly, for example, apple cider vinegar, white wine, red wine vinegar as well as rice vinegar, or, depending on the quality, balsamic vinegar belongs in this category.

Condition

All other Italian vinegar and balsamic products that do not meet the requirements for vinegar fall into the condiment category. Condimento is the Italian word for seasoning. These products can contain anything: thickeners, fructose and glucose syrups, colors, flavors, etc.

For example, balsamic cream belongs in this category. Balsamic cream gets a viscous consistency from thickeners and huge amounts of sugar, so that it can be used e.g. B. can be used to decorate dishes. Because the balsamic cream contains sugar, it tastes much sweeter than balsamic vinegar – which means it goes well with desserts or strawberries and fruit.

A condiment does not necessarily have to be of poorer quality than vinegar. If you are looking for a condiment without additives, then it is best to look at the list of ingredients.

Bianco balsamic

The balsamico Bianco (also called condiments Bianco) also belongs to the condiment category. Balsamico Bianco consists of a mixture of grape must and white wine vinegar. There is a stubborn misconception that balsamico Bianco is white because it is made from white grapes and Aceto Bianco is brown because it is made from red grapes.

Although white balsamico is often made from white grapes, this is not the reason for its color, as balsamic vinegar is also often made from white grapes. The balsamico Bianco, on the other hand, is white because it is only stored for a short time (and sometimes not at all) in the barrel.

Balsamico Bianco tastes fruity and fresh, less acidic than pure white wine vinegar, and less tart than Aceto balsamico. If the Aceto balsamico tastes too intense, the Balsamico bianco is better served.

The difference between balsamic vinegar and wine vinegar

You might be wondering what the difference is between wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar. After all, wine vinegar is made from wine, the starting product of which is also grape must. The manufacturing process is basically the same. You could even call balsamic vinegar a variant of wine vinegar.

The difference lies in the fact that the traditional balsamic vinegar is repeatedly added with boiled grape must during production and that part of the balsamic vinegar is always poured into another wooden barrel. The cheaper balsamic vinegar simply consists of wine vinegar to which boiled grape must is added. Aceto balsamico tastes much sweeter than wine vinegar.

The lower the quality of the balsamic vinegar, the closer the product is too pure wine vinegar since it contains less and less grape must. In addition, even high-quality wine vinegar usually does not mature for longer than a year – high-quality balsamic vinegar, on the other hand, several years.

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