How Italian balsamic vinegar is made: history and curiosities

Balsamic vinegar has been used in cooking for centuries, it’s believed to be a deep part of Roman traditions and may even pre-date this period. Naturally, over this period there have been changes and tweaks, leading to a variety of different types of balsamic vinegar.

Whether you use balsamic vinegar regularly or not, you’re certain to find the following facts about how is balsamic vinegar made and its interesting history.

A quick history lesson

While it’s been said that the Romans were the first to the must of grapes, the first official reference to this delightful and precious vinegar dates to the 12th century: that describes the procedures for creating balsamic vinegar, although it doesn’t use the word ‘balsamic’.

Detailed production techniques mentioning balsamic vinegar don’t appear until 1862. Two Italians, Francesco Aggazzotti and Pio Fabriani, describe the secrets of their balsamic vinegar cellar, known as the acetaia. That’s the production method which is still in use today! Of course, there are several variants.

What makes balsamic vinegar different from regular vinegar

As the name suggests, Modena balsamic vinegar originates in the Modena region of Italy and it’s made from grape must: that means the grapes are crushed with their skins on, and even the seeds and the stems are crushed.

The mixture is for an extended period, this concentrates the sweetness of the grapes. Most traditionalists will want the vinegar to reach a minimum of 30% sugar concentration: that’s achieved simply by boiling it, and it’s then left to ferment for as long as three weeks before being aged in caskets. Genuine Modena balsamic vinegar is aged through five barrels, each one smaller than the last and made from a different wood. It’s this process which concentrates and flavors the vinegar: the greater the number of aging barrels the more concentrated and rich the flavor. In contrast, regular vinegar is normally made from fermented grains, such as corn, wheat and rice. The fermentation process is followed by a refining process which removes all unwanted impurities and flavors, leaving you with white vinegar, clear and colorless. It’s sharp and acidic.

Balsamic vinegar from Modena is deemed to be the most authentic. However, you’ll find there are different levels of Modena vinegar, depending on its age. It’s aged in oak barrels, allowing the flavor to deepen and transform over a long period. In some places, balsamic vinegar of Modena has been stored for centuries. Just a little is removed every year to enhance the flavor of younger balsamic vinegar.

Sample authentic Modena, Italy balsamic vinegar and you’ll find a mixture of fruit wood and even a hint of caramel. The vinegar is entirely natural, nothing is added to the musk. That’s why it’s seen as such a culinary delight and how it can enhance the flavor of thousands of recipes across Italy and the rest of the planet.

Surprising facts about balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is often added to salads and dressings, adding a delightful flavor. However, you may be surprised to learn that it is also used on desserts. Genuine Modena balsamic vinegar is sweet enough that it makes a delicious addition to a variety of desserts, including fruits and even ice cream!

Research suggests that balsamic vinegar could help with digestive issues and even improve weight control, as it is very low in calories. Naturally, studies are ongoing. You may also be surprised to learn that, despite its sweetness, balsamic vinegar is still acidic. As such, it’s excellent at breaking down proteins in meat: that’s why it’s often used as a meat tenderizer.

If you’re not already adding balsamic vinegar from Italy to your dishes, it’s time you started!