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The best balsamic vinegar will have nothing added to it except grapes. A company which produces a true “traditional” balsamic vinegar will usually also produce a less expensive version, but it is still considered a quality balsamic vinegar that was made following the exact principles, the only difference is that it hasn't been aged as long. You can have confidence when buying these. But, make sure you check the labels for the “LESSER” quality balsamic vinegars...they will contain brown sugar or caramel to mimic the sweetness of the better vinegars.
To be sure that what is approved is what is bottled, the approved lot of balsamic vinegar never leaves the consortium. In the presence of the producer it is bottled in the exclusive bottle of 100 ml., designed by the GIUGIARO DESIGN STUDIO. The shape of this bottle is registered and patented and can only be used by members of the consortium. All "Tradizionale" balsamics from Modena come in this same shape of bottle.
It is classified in “WHITE CAP” (refined) - that is aged at least 12 years, or “GOLD CAP” (extra-old) - that is aged at least 25 years. It is then given a seal and number...the bottle along with its number is then registered in a set of very large books. Each bottle has its own written history there. Only 5,000 bottles can be produced annually.
Balsamic vinegar is the pure, sweet and tart vinegar of the Trebbiano grape that can only be produced in the regions of Modena and Reggio in Italy.
It has a fluid and syrup-like consistency with a deep, charred brown color and a hint of spice and honey in its aroma that is described as distinct, complex, sharp, and unmistakably, but pleasantly acid. The flavor is sweet and sour in perfect proportion and only a drop of it on your tongue will tell you that it is unlike any wine vinegar. The most interesting thing that really sets the genuine balsamic vinegar apart from the imitators, are the sensations in your mouth that you will notice minutes after swallowing the balsamic vinegar. To appreciate true balsamic vinegar, you have to taste it for yourself!
Before the balsamic vinegar can be bottled, it is subjected to a number of thorough examinations done by a board of tasters appointed by the Consortium of the Producers. It begins with a consortium member bringing in a batch of vinegar to be tested…a team of experts is assembled and given samples of the vinegar. Without knowing who the maker is, they then
perform a series of approximately 90 tests and make independent ratings. If the batch gets enough points it receives the right to be called Tradizionale. If it does not get enough points, it is returned to the owner.
True balsamics are not to be poured, but used by the drop...Add to marinades, drizzle over finished dishes –simple pastas, risotti, roasted and grilled vegetables, meat, seafood, and flans. It can be used on meat dishes or in a pasta sauce, but it should be cooked only briefly, so as not to cause the subtle flavors to literally evaporate. A few drops, added to a regular olive oil and vinegar dressing will ennoble any salad! Sprinkle a couple of drops over fruit or on vanilla ice cream and rich creamy desserts.
When buying the true balsamic vinegar, you should be able to tell if it is real by the shape of the bottle and, on the label look for the key word "tradizionale", as in "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" and "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio in Emilia." With Modena's vinegars, "Vecchio" indicates a 12-year-old vinegar; "Extra Vecchio" a 25-year-old. In Reggio, tradizionale is in three levels of quality: red label, silver and gold. Remember, with out the word "tradizionale" on the bottle, the vinegar is not true artisan-made balsamic no matter what a label may claim about age and quality. Some producers to look for are Malpighi, Carandini, Cavalli, Pedroni, and Biancardi to name a few.
To guarantee that the production of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is done in respect of the rules taught by “the discipline of production”, the Consortium of the Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has been established. This consortium is not in charge of the marketing of the products, but it has been formed to control the quality of the vinegar, in order that it can be titled TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR OF MODENA of denomination of controlled origin (D.O.C.)
There is a lot of confusion about balsamic vinegar. On the grocery shelves you may find $3.00 bottles next to $25.00 bottles (often the $3.00 bottles have fancier labels). But, buyer beware! Not all balsamics are what they appear to be. True aceto balsamic vinegar comes in 3.4 ounce bottles and sells from $50.00 to $500.00 per bottle! It must be aged a minimum of 10 years. The better balsamics are aged 25 to 50 years. Find a good-quality medium priced vinegar to use in your cooking.
The first historical reference to balsamic vinegar dates back to 1046, when a bottle of balsamic vinegar was reportedly given to Emperor Enrico III of Franconia as a gift. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a disinfectant. It was believed that aceto balsamico possessed medicinal qualities that a small amount rubbed on the forehead or chest would chase away fevers, colds, and other ailments. That is the reason it is called balsamico, a “balsam”.