The 10 Best Balsamic Vinegars
How Balsamic Vinegar Is Made
Similar to champagne, which can only be produced in the Champagne region of France, true balsamic vinegar can only be produced in a particular geographic location, this being the Modena and Reggio regions of Italy.
The first known reference to balsamic vinegar comes from 1046, when Emperor Enrico III was given a bottle as a gift. During the Middle Ages, it was considered a cure all and used for everything from labor pains to sore throats.
Unlike many other vinegars, balsamic is not made from wine. Instead, it is an aged reduction made from three particular grape varieties: Lamrusco, Trebbiano, and Spergola. These grapes are pressed and slowly boiled down in a large copper kettle until the water content is reduced by 50% or more. This results in a must, which is then placed into wooden barrels to age. Some already aged balsamic vinegar is also added to assist in acetification.
The only woods approved for aging balsamic vinegar are oak, chestnut, juniper, ash, cherry, mulberry, and a cacia. Each year, as the must in the barrels evaporates, it is transferred into smaller barrels, each of these is made from one of the different woods listed above. This allows them to pick up different flavor nuances from each type of wood during the process. When the balsamic vinegar is sold, it is divided into three different age categories; young is from 3 to 5 years, middle-aged is from 6 to 12 years, and old is from 12+ years. Some of the most expensive balsamic vinegars can be over 100 years old.
Health Benefits Of Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar offers a range of health benefits that cannot be found in many other commonly used vinegars. These many health benefits are most likely what led to its reputation as a cure all in the middle ages. Those with high blood pressure will be happy to learn that balsamic vinegar can help to lower and stabilize blood pressure.
It reduces atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries that is commonly responsible for high blood pressure. Researchers have found that animals who consumed vinegar regularly had lower systolic blood pressure levels. Balsamic vinegar also contains a high amount of antioxidants, which can help repair damaged caused by free radicals in cells and protect the body from cancer and heart disease.
In addition to stabilizing blood pressure, balsamic vinegar can stabilize cholesterol by limiting the ability of harmful LDL cholesterol to oxidize, reducing the damage it can do. Balsamic vinegar is also low on the glycemic index, which is a scale for the effect of food on blood sugar levels. Foods with a low glycemic index don't cause spikes in blood sugar, making them safe for diabetics, and healthy for everybody.
The iron, potassium, calcium, and manganese in balsamic vinegar can help improve the body's ability to lose weight. This can make it especially beneficial to those on a diet who are looking to drop a few pounds. Along with improving the body's ability to lose weight, it can help digestion. Vinegar boosts pepsin activity, which is the enzyme that breaks down protein into amino acids so it can be more easily absorbed by the body.
How To Choose A Balsamic Vinegar
True balsamic vinegar is expensive, but those who have had it before know that it is worth every penny. All high quality balsamic vinegar will be labeled as either "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" or "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena". This translates to traditional balsamic vinegar of Reggio Emilia and traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, respectively.
If they have one of the these, labels than you can be assured they were produced to the exacting standards mentioned above. You should also look for the Denominazione di orgine controllata (DOC) number and seal, which indicates that it is approved by the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.)
Some great balsamic vinegar manufacturers sell their product without the DOC label, which means that one should also double check the ingredient list before writing off a particular brand. When examining the ingredient label, one should see the must of grapes as the first ingredient, not vinegar as one might expect. Good quality balsamic vinegar will also not have any caramel or flavorings of any kind added. Also look for a notation somewhere on the bottle that specifics the vinegar in questions has been "aged in wooden barrels", not just "aged in wood." Lower quality manufacturers often just add wood chips to their vinegar so they can put "aged in wood" on their bottles.
Don't be mislead by lower quality balsamic vinegar labeled as "Aceto Balsamico di Modena" or "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena". Unless it has the word tradizionale or traditional, it is an imitation balsamic vinegar that is made from vinegar and not grape must. It is important to look for every indication of a true balsamic vinegar as manufacturers go to great lengths to trick consumers into buying lower quality imitations. For example, some make a balsamic vinegar that is actually a combination of red wine vinegar and grape must from traditional balsamic vinegar. This may allow them to get away with using grape must as the first ingredient on the label, but they usually aren't aged and won't have the complexity of true balsamic vinegar.