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Balsamic vinegar is a thick, sweet-smelling vinegar that is made from pure and unfermented grape juice, which is known as must. Several varieties of grapes can be used to create balsamic vinegar, but the Trebbiano grape, which is native to Modena, Italy, is the most common. Another variety that is commonly used is Lambrusco. Ancellotta and Sauvignon are sometimes used as well. This type of vinegar is often used in cooking, as a salad dressing or as a topping for vegetables.
How it is Made
Vinegar is produced through the oxidation of a fermented liquid. This liquid can include fruit juice, cider, malt and other liquids. In most cases, an acetic acid bacteria — sometimes with cellulose in the form of a slime known as mother of vinegar — is added, which oxidizes the liquid, producing vinegar. Historically, balsamic vinegar was not oxidized but was instead a type of grape juice reduction. Modern versions, however, are most often produced like other types of vinegar.
The process of making balsamic vinegar begins by boiling the grape juice until it becomes a thick syrup. It is then transferred to the wooden barrels to start the aging process. The bacteria is added, which oxidizes the juice and turns it into vinegar. This can take from six months to several years.
The Aging Process
Most gourmet balsamic vinegar is slowly aged in wooden barrels. Each manufacturer has its own process and formula for aging the vinegar, moving it from one type of wood barrel to another to create its own signature flavor. Some of the more commonly used types of wood from which the barrels are made include ash, cherry, oak, juniper and chestnut. The commercial balsamic vinegars that are sold in the average grocery store probably have been aged for only a few months in stainless steel tanks, and some have not been aged at all.
Balsamic vinegar can be used in cooking or as a tangy salad dressing. This fruity vinegar is often used as a replacement for cooking wines because it provides similar flavoring. It is commonly cooked with chicken or sautéed vegetables. Balsamic vinaigrette dressings might also contain olive oil and seasonings such as basil and garlic. This type of vinegar also can be added to food such as spinach after it has been cooked, thereby creating a unique seasoning.