Liquid gold is its nickname. Mellow acidity and syrupy viscosity are its claims to fame. Balsamic vinegar -- aceto balsamico tradizionale -- comes from Modena, Italy, where for centuries people have been producing the thick brew by aging the juice of white trebbiano grapes in a succession of smaller and smaller wood barrels for at least six years and often for 25 years. People there drink the 50- and 100-year-old versions after dinner as a digestif, and one local restaurateur told me he has customers who sip it at $10 per teaspoonful.
For a long time, I've wondered about the difference between the commercial versions and the real thing and whether older is really better and worth the higher price. So I eagerly attended a tasting sponsored by the local chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier (an organization of women food professionals) held at the new Primi Piatti restaurant in Tysons Corner, Va.
What I learned is that the younger the vinegar, the more acidic it tastes. Older balsamic not only has less bite but also has a sweeter, more complex flavor. After 25 years, the vinegar becomes dark, thick, sweet, slightly tangy and leaves a delicious sweet-sour aftertaste on the tongue.
Think of aged balsamic vinegar as a table-side flavoring rather than a cooking ingredient. For like the finest wine, its taste is so special that it should always be the center of attraction. And, at $100 for 3.3 ounces, it is also too expensive to be used as anything other than a condiment: sprinkled over strawberries and raspberries, or on top of grilled fish and vegetables, for example.
In contrast, artificially aged mass-market vinegars are fine for marinades and as part of a sauce. As for those in the $4-to-$8 range per 15 ounces, I liked the 1-year-old Duca di Modena better than its 5-year-old sibling and better than the popular Monari Federzoni.
Higher quality, more costly (between $10 and $30 per 8 ounces) and more flavorful commercial blends, which contain a portion of aged balsamic, are delicious in salad dressings or brushed on fish and vegetables. My favorite was Del Duca Cubica.
The first recipe, for balsamic-infused onions, is one we enjoyed at the tasting. We had it with grilled tuna steak but grilled chicken breast or veal chops would be equally delicious.
PRIMI PIATTI'S BALSAMIC VINEGAR-INFUSED ONIONS
3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon raisins
1 tablespoon pine nuts
2-3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
Wrap onions in aluminum foil. Bury in the hot coals in a barbecue grill or bake in a 400-degree oven for 1-1 1/2 hours or until soft. Peel and slice. Heat oil in a skillet, add onions and saute until lightly browned. Stir in vinegar, raisins, pine nuts, cloves and bay leaf. Cook 7-8 minutes. Grill 2 tuna steaks, chicken breasts or veal chops and serve on top of onions. Serves two.
TOMATO BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE
1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
tablespoon minced shallots or scallions
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup tomato juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
In a heavy skillet cook tomato over low heat until all liquid evaporates. Remove and allow to cool. Combine tomato with shallots, garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Let stand at least 2 hours to blend flavors. Serve over green salad or grilled vegetables such as squash, peppers, eggplant or carrots. Makes 1 cup.
(Adapted from "The New Basics" cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. Workman, 1989.)