Balsamic vinegar is not derived from wine, unlike other kinds of vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is a reduction of grape juice, which is sometimes called grape must. While some theorize that balsamic vinegar can be traced back to the Roman Empire, the truth is that the origins are unknown. It was widely used as a medicine in Italy and according to legend, Helen of Troy took regular baths in it. There are also mentions — including one by Virgil — of grape must being boiled, though whether the must was used to make balsamic vinegar is unknown.
Balsamic vinegar was first mentioned in the 12th century and referred to the year 1046 when a bottle of it was given to the emperor of Franconia. For the most part, it would be consumed by the local gentry who shared it with statesmen and rulers.
Napoleon inadvertently created new markets for balsamic vinegar when he invaded Modena. All of the nobility’s valuables were seized and sold off including their barrels of vinegar.
Things began to change in the 19th and 20th century, balsamic vinegar would become popular around the world. Italy became the world’s leading vinegar exporter.
It was used as a disinfectant during the Middle Ages and was also considered a cure-all that could remedy conditions ranging from cold symptoms to the pains of childbirth.
To make balsamic vinegar, grape juice is boiled in copper pots until half of the water content is gone and it takes on the consistency of a syrup. The reduction is stored in wooden barrels with older balsamic vinegar, which is added to aid the process of turning into vinegar. The vinegar is placed into different barrels each year to enhance its flavors since it takes on the taste of the different types of wood. The woods used to make barrels for balsamic vinegar include oak, mulberry, and acacia.
To be considered true balsamic vinegar, the vinegar has to be produced in the Modena and Reggio regions. These areas are where the vinegar developed, though historians have not been able to trace the precise course of that development.
The term balsamic vinegar was first used in the mid-17th century and was used to describe the vinegar that the Duke of Modena had in his inventory. The name comes from the Italian aceto balsamic, which is the Italian for vinegar. Balsamico means that the vinegar has medicinal value — it can heal.
Balsamic vinegar flavor profile
Balsamic vinegar has a sweet, fruity flavor that makes it a little different from most other vinegars. Its consistency is also thicker than wine vinegars.
Health benefits of balsamic vinegar
The healing properties of balsamic vinegar result from compounds like:
- Minerals: Balsamic vinegar contains small amounts of calcium, iron and manganese in each serving.
- Flavonoids: Balsamic vinegar contains flavonoids from the grape juice used to make it. Flavonoids are responsible for its antioxidant benefits.
Balsamic vinegar helps to treat or prevent a long list of ailments including:
- High blood pressure: Balsamic vinegar helps to lower your blood pressure by reducing the atherosclerosis that hardens arteries.
- Obesity: Because of its low caloric load, balsamic vinegar is effective as a treatment for obesity since it allows you to add a significant amount of flavor without making your food less healthy.
- High cholesterol: Studies have shown that balsamic vinegar does have antioxidant properties that limit the cell damage from low-density lipoprotein, otherwise known as bad cholesterol.
Salad dressing is the most popular way to use balsamic vinegar though it is also great for marinades, glazes, and sauces.