Balsamic vinegar, a staple in most households, is used primarily to dress salads or to flavor vegetables, but what is unknown to most is the process of making true balsamic of Modena and why it matters. The more knowledge one has of a product the better they will be able to use it for all of its taste and health benefits. Before I learned about balsamic from Santisi, I rarely used it other than to splash on a salad. Now I am making dishes with it that I never would have thought of before.
In order to understand the different types of balsamic it is important to understand how it is made. Only two varieties of grapes are used to make traditional balsamic, Lambrusco and Trebbiano. The balsamic is made by first pressing the grapes and then cooking the juice at a low temperature for 36 to 40 hours. This produces grape must. The must is then acetified and transferred into oak fermentation barrels for 18 months to 3 years. After fermentation is complete, the liquid is transferred into a line of barrels called a battery in the attic of the building. The barrels are made of Oak, Chestnut, Ash, Mulberry, Cherry or Juniper wood. The rotation of the type of barrel is a company secret as it gives the vinegar a unique flavor. In some cases, only one variety of wood will be used to flavor the vinegar. The barrels have been used for centuries, some even date back to the 1780’s! Each year in the winter when the bacteria is inactive, the liquid is transferred from one barrel to another in the battery, a process called Travasi. Since the initial fermentation takes between 18 months and 3 years, the number on the bottle does not indicate the age of the product, as many are led to believe. The number simply means the product traveled through that many barrels before bottling.
When it comes to balsamic there are two main products sold at Santisi: balsamic condiment and balsamic vinegar. The difference is in the acidity level. Condiment is around 4% whereas vinegar is around 6%. Both balsamic products begin the same way, but after the fermentation is complete the vinegar has wine added to it which raises the acidity and alcohol content. Both products then go to the attic to travel through the barrels.
I had heard that true balsamic had a sweetness to it, but I was used to the thin, sharp liquid we would buy at the store so it was hard to imagine. When I first tasted the condiment it came slowly out of the bottle and had a much fruiter taste than I expected. It was nothing like the so called balsamic I had tried before. The higher the number on the bottle the thicker the liquid as more would evaporate as the liquid traveled from barrel to barrel. The 16 was almost like a syrup and I could imagine using it on fresh fruit or ice cream since it did not have the harsh finish like other products and had a nice raisin flavor.
The vinegar was much different from the condiment as it had more of a pleasing tartness to it that would coat your tongue. In Italy it is illegal for companies to put the number of years on the product so each brand uses a different way to distinguish between the products. In the case of Acetaia Reale brand, they use shields on the bottle. Each shield represents two transfers. The five shield balsamic vinegar is much less harsh than the two shield, but it is all a matter of preference.
Balsamic condiment and vinegar are not only used to dress salads, but can be used on many things from meats to ice cream. I love using the 4 condiment on arugula with freshly grated parmesan cheese. The white balsamic with the orange infused olive oil is perfect for salads with its fresh citrus taste. The white balsamic can also be used as a replacement for wine vinegar as it does not alter the color of the dish and has a milder flavor. The 12 condiment pairs perfectly with soup, pasta, rice, vegetables, roasted or grilled meat, fish, salmon, cheese, yogurt, fruit or vanilla ice cream. Just a few drops on any of these brings a new take on classic dishes. The uses are endless for balsamic products and they are sure to please any crowd!