According to the dictionary, balsamic vinegar is a type of dark-colored sweet Italian vinegar made from white grapes and aged in wooden barrels over a number of years. I had picked up a bottle of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena at the store. I had only ever had it as a salad dressing, and frankly, never gave it much thought beyond that. As far as I knew, there were three kinds of vinegar: white, apple cider and the traditional balsamic.
Ann Esselstyn educated me about what I was missing. At the Farms2Forks Immersion Weekend in Austin, TX, Ann was speaking about her favorite foods. She told us about the many flavors of balsamic vinegars available. She had even mentioned putting balsamic vinegar on oatmeal. Oatmeal? Clearly I needed to investigate! What I found was amazing. From black currant, dark chocolate and Sicilian lemon to a rich cinnamon pear, the variety of flavors available is astonishing.
Balsamic vinegar is a reduction made from grapes. The unfermented white sweet grape juice that is used comes from Trebbiano grapes. The grape juice is slowly cooked in a copper cauldron until it is reduced by 35 to 50 per cent. Then, the reduction is placed into oak barrels to age. As it ages, some of the vinegar evaporates, then the vinegar is transferred into smaller barrels made of different kinds of wood (chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash and juniper are commonly used). Each type of wood used infuses a different flavor into the vinegar, making it more interesting and complex. As the vinegar ages and becomes concentrated, it becomes thick, sweet and dark. It can be aged from 3 years to over 150 years.
Two of the basic categories of balsamic vinegars are dark barrel-aged balsamic vinegars and whitebalsamic vinegars. The white varieties are not considered true balsamics, but were created as an alternative to the dark varieties which could discolor certain foods. They are refreshingly sweet and tart in comparison to the more complex darker varieties which can be thick and rich in flavor. Some of these white balsamic vinegars are even being used to flavor shaved ice gourmet snow cones recently.
Most balsamic vinegars range from 3 calories per serving to around 20 calories per serving, are fat free, low to no sodium and are perfectly Engine 2 compliant. Many varieties are imported from Italy, though there are some handcrafted vinegar makers here in America that are making a name for themselves. I’ve seen bottles for as low as a few dollars to over $30 per bottle. From your local grocer to specialty stores online, take a moment to look at the many flavors available when you have some time. Each flavor is bound to be an adventure!
So how do you use balsamic vinegar other than as a salad dressing? Try drizzling it on fresh fruit, tossed with pasta, stirred in sauces, a splash in sparkling water or even as an added flavor in your frozen banana soft serve ice cream. You can also try what Ann suggested, a drizzle on your oatmeal! If you tried balsamic vinegar and didn’t like it, try another flavor. I am thinking of trying peach next. Or maybe fig? Below is one of Ann’s recipes to try. How have you used balsamic vinegar in your kitchen?
Butter Bean And Basil Salad
3 cans butter beans, rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chopped basil
16 ounces frozen corn, thawed
1 box grape tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, chopped
Add juice & zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Mix and serve over bed of spinach or romaine.
Note: Recipe compiled by Ann Esselstyn, wife of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., for his book: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.