Exploring Balsamic Vinegar: History and Recipes

Updated on March 25, 2020
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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

 Balsamic vinegar
Balsamic vinegar | Source

A Culinary Holy Trinity

In the culinary arts, there are several trios of foods that work so perfectly together, are so magical and heavenly, that they are referred to as “the trinity.” Cajun cooking regards onions, bell peppers, and celery as such. Spanish cooks could not create paella without the sofrito of onion, garlic, and tomatoes. The French mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onions is legendary.

Italians have a different trinity—the region of Emilia-Romagna produces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (balsamic vinegar of Modena).

Don't Be Fooled: Two Types of Basalmics

There are two balsamic vinegars and they are akin in name only. First, there is the balsamic that you purchase at your local grocery store; it’s on the shelf next to the apple cider vinegar and olive oils. We use it in salad dressings, we serve it as a dip for crusty slices of baguette and when feeling particularly artsy, we create a rich, thick reduction to drizzle on steaks and grilled vegetables and perhaps even vanilla gelato. This balsamic is relatively inexpensive. It might be composed of up to 80 percent red wine vinegar and be aged as little as 60 days. It is not the subject of this article.

Then, there is the true balsamic, the one which has been aged a minimum of 12 years and is made of 100 percent must (the skins, seeds, and juice of grapes that have been pressed for the making of wine).

Balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico, is a loaded name. It implies a precious substance, a spice, an aromatic plant, a perfume, a medicine, a cordial—in other words, an exceptional vinegar with all of those attributes. But it is not vinegar, and it is not produced in the same way, even though in the early stages of its manufacture a vinegar mother may or may not be used. The genuine product, aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, is a dense, aromatic condiment.

— Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley [Oxford University Press: New York] 2007

Going Back to Roman Times

Virgil (70 B.C. to 17 B.C.) spoke of balsamic in the first book of Georgics:

Many things too go better in the cool night,

or when, at first light, Dawn wets the Earth with dew...

One stays awake by the late blaze of a winter fire,

and sharpens torches with a keen knife, while his wife

solaces herself with singing over her endless labour,

running the noisy shuttle through the warp,

or boiling down the sweet juice of grape must

on the fire, while skimming the cauldron’s boiling liquid

with a leaf.

Fast-forward 1,000 years. A story was told that in 1046, when Henry III was to be coronated as the Holy Roman Emperor, the journey from his home in Bavaria to Rome brought him to Modena, in the Emilia-Romagna region. By air travel, the distance between the two cities is a mere 200 miles, but in the 11th century, Modena would have been more than a quick rest stop. As the new to-be-crowned emperor, Henry was courted, he was wined and dined, and the Countess Matilde di Canossa, the wife of the powerful lord of the region, presented Henry a special gift—a silver cask of balsamic vinegar. This event was described by the monk Donzio of Canossa in his poem Acta Comitissae Mathildis or Vita Mathildis

Five Centuries of the Este Dynasty

The House of Este was an Italian dynasty whose realm spanned more than five centuries; it extended as far north as England and as far east as Bavaria. In 1747 the household inventory of Duke Cesare d’Este was recorded and among the many treasures was listed “balsamic vinegar” (the first time that adjective appeared in print). This balsamic was important but not because it was something new and innovative (by the 18th-century balsam had already been in use for 1,000 years or more). Balsamic was highly prized because its creation is time-consuming and exacting. Wood-aged vinegar was a balsam, a soothing tonic and it was thought to be a cure for everything from scratchy throats to the plague.

Eventually, the Este dynasty toppled (as all dynasties ultimately do). Ercole II of Este escaped Napolean’s troops and took refuge in Venice. The palace was stripped of its riches and the city coffers were emptied by the French occupiers. Balsamic, once treasured as a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation, became nothing more than a commodity. Like a faux Rolex, knock-offs of Modena balsamic were produced.

Countless families created their own balsamics. Family vineyards were tended, grapes harvested, the must produced and transferred to wooden casks. Each family had their own treasured recipe, vintages initiated at the birth of a child were often held until that heir married and had a family of his own.

Near the end of the 18th century, a Hungarian agronomist Ludwig Mitterpacher von Mitterburg wrote “Elements of Agriculture,” devoting one entire chapter to the production of balsamic vinegar.

A Global Phenomenon

Balsamic remained little known outside of Italy until the 1980s. Gastronomy was becoming less regional and more global. More tourists were exploring Italia and likewise, Italian chefs were migrating to other parts of the globe, in particular, the United States.

Lambrusco grapes
Lambrusco grapes | Source

How Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Is Made

  • Only white Trebbiano and red Lambrusco grapes are used, sorted by a de-stemming machine (diraspatrice).
  • The sugars in the juice will begin to convert to alcohol, so cooking must begin immediately; the juice is cooked (not boiled) for 24 hours and is reduced 50 percent to a thick syrup, cotto moto.
  • The cotto moto is further cooked to caramelize it, adding flavor. At this point, the juice is concentrated to about 30 percent dissolved sugars. A saccharometer is used to measure the sugar content.
  • This reduced cotto moto is then transferred to a large barrel (badessa) where fermentation begins.
  • The barrels are located in the attic where seasonal changes will contribute to the maturation of the cotto moto.
  • The fermentation changes the thickened juice to a vinegar. When the correct level of acidity is reached, the liquid is transferred to the first of 5 to 7 barrels (batteria). Each barrel is sequentially smaller than the one before it and is made of a different wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, and acacia are used).
  • Aging takes a minimum of 12 years

Recipes

Risotto with pumpkin cream, balsamic, and hazelnuts
Risotto with pumpkin cream, balsamic, and hazelnuts | Source

Risotto With Pumpkin Cream, Balsamic, and Hazelnuts

Today in Modena, Italy, there is a consortium that oversees the production of Modena balsamic and ensures that promoted, its quality and purity are protected, and its production is held to the highest standards.

Licia Cagnoni has developed a host of recipes that use Modena balsamic not as an afterthought but as an integral component of the meal. Her risotto with pumpkin, balsamic, and hazelnuts offers an explosion of flavors. The pumpkin and vegetable broth create a sweet, creamy base, Parmigiano Reggiano (also from the region) and butter lend a nutty-salty richness, and the final drizzle of Modena balsamic gives brilliant color and dramatic pops of velvety sweet-tangy-oaky flavor.

Desmo
Desmo | Source

Desmo

First, a confession—I don't drink, so I cannot testify to the merits of this cocktail. However, it looks pretty, doesn't it? Just six drops of balsamic are used to flavor and color this after-dinner drink of brandy and cognac. Cheers.

Strawberry balsamic mousse
Strawberry balsamic mousse | Source

Strawberry Balsamic Mousse

Annemarie is an Italian-American girl who loves fresh foods, local ingredients, and all sorts of comfort foods. With her blog Just a Little Bit of Bacon, she shares her Italian-heritage foods with a New England spin. Her strawberry mousse features mascarpone and ricotta cheeses (does it get any more Italian than that?) with strawberries that are simmered to concentrate their flavors and reduce the juices to a syrupy liquid. The crowning touch is a drizzle of best-of-the-best balsamic vinegar.

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Linda Lum

    Comments

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      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 days ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Yes indeed that stuff is so good. You have a keeper there.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 days ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, my future son-in-law gave me a bottle of the "good" stuff for Christmas. He must really love me.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 days ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        How cool is that. I think I have tasted the real stuff but it seems to me it was way out of my price range.

        I do so love my balsamic - non-balsamic - vinegars.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        13 days ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna, I will as soon as the local berries are ripe (which should be soon).

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        13 days ago from Central Florida

        What an interesting article, Linda! I didn't know what we know as balsamic vinegar is actually a Rolex knock-off.

        The strawberry balsamic mousse looks yummy. Love ricotta cheese and balsamic is such a nice complement to both ricotta and strawberry. I can almost taste it!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, a friend posted on Facebook today that, after this quarantine, we will all end up with amazing cooking skills or a severe drinking problem (oh dear, I already know how to cook--yikes!).

        Seriously, I hope that people do find this as a time to stop relying on fast food (although a lot of restaurants are offering drive-through pick up and good for them to be able to continue doing business).

        Personally, I love having the time/luxury of being able to make a long-simmered spaghetti sauce, or making tortellini, or baking a loaf of bread. Maybe people will find skills they didn't know they had. Hmmm, maybe I'd better get busy with another article. What do you think? What could/should I focus on? What would be most helpful?

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 weeks ago from USA

        I like the idea of that risotto with pumpkin cream. While people are locked down they should pick a recipe they may not ordinarily try and just experiment. I doubt there’s a run on balsamic vinegar. If it’s not what they like, we sure know that people’s freezers are full of frozen pizzas for backup. Good history lesson too.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill I know that you were a history teacher, so your kind words melt my little itty bitty heart. But seriously, you are such a fussy eater. Do I need to come down to Olympia and cook something for you?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Well, Pamela, I had fun writing this. You just never know what I might uncover.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Raymond, I am glad that you enjoyed the history lesson. It was a fun topic to research.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        You explore the weirdest things. lol

        I may not eat most of what you write about, but I love the history lessons, so you get a Five Star rating from this picky eater.

        Hugs and love from Olympia

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        The history of balsamic is very interesting and that history is not something I knew before. I appreciate all the information in this article, Linda.

      • raymondphilippe profile image

        Raymond Philippe 

        2 weeks ago from The Netherlands

        I love balsamic vinegar, but frankly, I knew nothing about its history and production. Interesting!

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