July 18, 2024
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July 18, 2024
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Balsamic Vinegar: The Misunderstood, Classy Sweet-and-Sour Condiment From Italy

Two new products are now becoming available that are poised to change the kosher balsamic vinegar market. One, a higher quality PGI (protected geographical indication) vinegar that I tasted at the 2021 Kosherfest trade show and reviewed below. The other, not at the show, is the first PDO (protected designation of origin) vinegar to obtain kosher certification, and will be discussed in a future article.

Until the 1990s, kosher balsamic vinegar was a pipedream. Made from wine and aged in special barrels for several years, this delightful condiment seemed out of reach. Profiled in magazines like Gourmet, this condiment was aged for 12-50 years, at $3-11/ounce, and dripped from a medicine dropper onto strawberries, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or grilled fish or beef. Williams-Sonoma featured it and publicity created demand, and first in the non-kosher market, followed by kosher. Soon, balsamic vinegars appeared everywhere, but these were not the same product. This was a lesser quality vinegar, more suitable for making sweet salad dressings than drizzling onto vanilla ice cream.

The term “balsamic” comes from the Greek word for curative (compare to the English word “balm”) and it is related to the Hebrew word b’som (בשׂם‎) meaning spice or perfume—the same root as b’samim (בְשָׂמִים), the spices used in Havdala). Anyone can make a product and call it “balsamic vinegar” (or aceto balsamico in Italian).

However, like wines, cheeses and other names that are protected through the European Union’s PDO, three types of balsamic vinegar are protected balsamic vinegars. Two are Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia), the difference being the region of Italy where they are made. These are designated DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or PDO as alternative ways of indicating a protected designation of origin.

PDO vinegars are made from reduced grape must and aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of wooden barrels, and are produced exclusively in either the province of Modena or Reggio Emilia. These are the ones prized by chefs and found in small, expensive bottles in high-end gourmet shops, never in supermarkets, and so far not available kosher (though that is about to change).

The third is Aceto Balsamico di Modena, (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena). Without the word “Traditional” these are designated as IGP or PGI, alternative designations for protected geographical indication—where it is bottled. If it is not one of these three, there are no regulations for what is in it or where it is made. This is commercial-grade, is commonly sold in supermarkets, and what became available in the kosher market 30 years ago.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP or PGI is made from as little as 20% “grape must” (freshly crushed grape juice with all the skins, seeds and stems) blended with wine vinegar and with other ingredients such as coloring, caramel, and sometimes thickeners like guar gum or cornflour to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness of the aged Traditional (PDO) product. To be called a Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP, it must be matured (rather than aged) for two months and bottled in Modena, though it can be made anywhere and with ingredients sourced from anywhere. Aged IGP requires three years, but few IGP balsamic vinegars are aged. The higher the percentage of must, the higher quality, and the more distinct fruit notes the vinegar will have.

Because the predominant ingredient is wine vinegar that can come from anywhere, and the grape must percent varies, there can be considerable difference in flavor from one brand to another, or within grades of a single brand, and of course the product requires an extra degree of kosher supervision. For an informative description of how the OU supervises vinegar plants, see this blog entry: https://oukosher.org/blog/consumer-kosher/general-technical-issues-in-vinegar-plants.

For balsamic glazes, made to approximate the thickness of traditional balsamic vinegar, the product is cooked further to reduce the amount of water. This also caramelizes the sugars, increasing the sweetness and adding a cooked sugar flavor which is different from the traditional PDO which thickens through evaporation.

All kosher balsamic vinegars currently available as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena are IGP/PGI and are, based on their labels, just meeting the minimum standards (none aged or matured; all at about 20% must). They are available from several brands. The first to market was under Kedem’s Bartenura label, and others now include De La Rosa, Roland, Tuscanini, Natural Earth, Fleischmann’s, Galil, Mazzetti d’Altavilla, Fattorie Giacobazzi, and Sharon Valley.

At Kosherfest, I was able to sample two vinegars from a new entry to the kosher market. Located on a small farm estate in Modena, Italy, with cutting-edge process technology, Acetaia Giuseppe Cremonini grows mostly two types of grapes: Lambrusco Grasparossa IGT and Trebbiano DOC. In collaboration with the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, they use a rating system logo for its products, with one to five grape bunches to identify the grades and help consumers distinguish the different characteristics, including percent of must, thickness, and suggested uses.

The percentage of grape must ranges from 23% (1 grape) up to over 70% (5 grapes). They also rate the products from sour to sweet on a 1 to 10 scale. Existing kosher IGP products on the market would generally be equivalent to the 1-grape grade. The company has a large line of products, most of which are not kosher, but they now have several kosher items, all under the supervision of the Orthodox Union (OU):

1-grape IGP: More sour than sweet (3/10). Best used for salad dressing or vinaigrette dipping sauces

3-grape IGP: More dense and complex (5.5/10). Use for cooked vegetables, pizza, arugula.

5-grape matured IGP: Smooth, fruity, and creamy (8/10). Use in desserts, fruit salad, ice cream, baked pears, Very dense with about 73% must (almost three times that of 1-grape). Free of caramel.

Balsamic Glaze: About 50% must from 3-grape vinegar. Good for cheese, “meats,” pizza, chips, strawberries, and ice cream. Free of caramel.

White and Red Wine Vinegars (2/10).

I tasted the 1- and 3-grape balsamic vinegars. Both were well balanced, with the 3-grape exhibiting stronger fruity notes. The 5-grape and glaze are intended to approximate the flavor and density of traditional balsamic vinegars, but without the 12-50 year aging process and the resulting cost). Compared to the current IGP products on the market, these are a definite improvement, even if they are not Traditional PDO vinegars that you see in high-end gourmet stores. The product premiered at Kosherfest and will be arriving in stores soon.

Kosher balsamic vinegars started with low-end commodity versions, and now, with consumers more educated and sophisticated, better products are available. This higher-end IGP product is a welcome addition to the kosher pantry and restaurant kitchen. In a future article, I will discuss the only Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (PDO), which is coming to the market for the first time.

Michael Rogovin is an avid home cook and foodie based in Teaneck. He also oversaw the kosher cafeteria at New York Medical College, working closely with the Orthodox Union, and opened the world’s first (and as of this writing) only fully kosher Starbucks café at the school in 2019. His blog, Mipikale, focused on the intersection of kosher, vegan and cell-cultivated foods is available at mipikale.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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