Everything you need to know about balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is a rich and flavoursome dressing that is made with grape must. This dark, concentrated vinegar originated in Italy, but it is now enjoyed on salads, pasta and meat dishes all over the world. It works on so many types of dishes because it offers the classic combination of sweet and sour. While it remains as sour as any other type of vinegar, it has the added bonus of being sweet too. Versatile and tasty, this unique ingredient has a rich and illustrious history.

Balsamic vinegar

The history of balsamic vinegar

It is believed that balsamic dates back as far as 1046, which a bottle of the vinegar was given as a gift to Emperor Enrico III of Franconia. It was initially used as a disinfectant, but many believed balsamic also had therapeutic qualities. Indeed, many people used it to treat everything from a sore throat to stomach pains during the Middle Ages.

An Italian love affair

Italians have enjoyed a love affair with balsamic vinegar for nearly a thousand years. It has become a staple of the Italian diet, but its roots are firmly in the Modena region of the country. This once luxury substance was used by Estensi Dukes as Royal gifts. In later years, collections of balsamic were passed down the generations — often becoming a symbol of wealth and success.

The production process

Balsamic vinegar is made by reducing the juice of white sweet grapes and boiling them until a syrup is formed. The grapes are cooked in large metal cauldrons until around 50 percent of their water content evaporates. The thick liquid that is left is called a “must”, which is placed into wooden barrels. Older balsamic vinegar is added to speed of the process of acetification. The balsamic is moved to different barrels over the course of the ageing process, depending on exactly which flavour profiles are required. This entire process can take up to 12 years to complete.

Balsamic vinegar

The various uses for balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is an intense, sweet liquid that can be used in a number of dishes:

  • Salads: You can change the flavour profiles of almost any salad in an instant by adding a drizzle or two of balsamic vinegar. The sweet and sour nature of balsamic means its works perfectly with fresh tomatoes, but equally as well cheeses such as Parmigiano or Pecorino.
  • Soups and sauces: If you’re making a soup or a sauce with a tomato base, the addition of balsamic will bring your creation to life. The deep earthiness of balsamic is perfect for counterbalancing the sweetness of tomatoes — which is why the Italians pair them so often.
  • Braised dishes: If you like to cook casseroles and stews, you may often find that you’re looking for that one extra ingredient to add a little rich sweetness to your dish. Add a splash or two of balsamic right at the end of the cooking process to give your braised dishes a different dimension.
  • Sweet syrups: Balsamic is now being used in desserts with increasing frequency. If you’re looking for a tasty topping for cheesecake or ice cream, simply boil some balsamic vinegar and sugar in a pan, and reduce it down until it becomes thick and gloopy. You can add other flavours according to your tastes — cinnamon works wonderfully, for instance.
  • Marinating meat: If you want to add a different flavour to your meats, marinate them in balsamic for a few hours first. Beef works particularly well with balsamic when you’re grilling it or cooking over an open flame.
  • Refreshing drinks: You can use balsamic vinegar in the same way you’d use fruit cordial. Pour a little in a glass, and top it up with soda water. Add a little strawberry puree to make a refreshing drink during the summer months.

Balsamic is one of the most versatile and loved culinary creations to ever come out of Italy, so make sure you always have some at home!