That title made you want to keep reading, right? What do you mean, it's not what you think it is?
Most of the balsamic vinegars sold in stores is not really balsamic vinegar. Yep. When you pick up a bottle of balsamic, if there are two ingredients on the back of the bottle, you don’t have the real stuff (aka certified by the consortium of balsamic vinegar in Italy).
The ingredient list should be singular: “grape must” and nothing else. Most vinegars we use on a daily basis have wine vinegar in them and often times, caramel and color, etc. to make them look like balsamic vinegar.
The original, traditional product is produced only in Modena or Reggio Emilia from the juice of just harvested Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, which are crushed and boiled down to approximately 30% of their original volume and is called “must.”
The must is stored in a wooden barrel (chestnut, oak, mulberry, etc.) and aged for a minimum of 12 years in a battery of seven barrels. The “battery” means that in each barrel, there is a little bit from the barrel before that. At the beginning of the process, barrel one is filled. The next year, what’s in barrel one is transferred to barrel two, and more must put in barrel one. The next year, what was in barrel 2 goes into barrel 3; what was in barrel 1 goes in barrel 2, and so on, down the line.
The sixth and final barrel keeps being added to until after year 12. That barrel (and that barrel only) is bottled (unless you're aging it to 25 years, which is the only other vintage offered of authentic balsamic vinegar) and the process starts again.
The 12 year is usually notated with a red cap while the vecchio or old (15-20 year) has a silver cap. Extra-vecchio (20-25 year) has a gold cap. And there are only two bottle shapes approved by the consortium so if you don’t have one of those, you don’t have traditional balsamic.
Once you try the traditional balsamic, it will be impossible to buy the caramel-y, watery liquid they sell at the store. The balsamic vinegar approved by the consortium is dark brown and syrup-like in its consistency. It's acidic smelling but not overpowering. And it's perfectly balanced in flavor - sweet yet sour.
The traditional balsamic should be saved for drizzling - and not just because of its cost! We pour it over vegetables, meat, fish, ice cream...it makes everything taste better.
The commercial grade balsamic you find in grocery stores is what we use when we're cooking with balsamic (heating it up, adding to salad dressing, marinating chicken) - just don't tell our friends back in Modena!
For a real treat, we love Giuseppe Giusti's extra-vecchio balsamic that we were lucky enough to taste when we were in Modena last - purchase it here and enjoy it for years to come.