12/07/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Balsamic Vinegar -- A Luscious Elixir

You might be surprised to know that balsamic vinegar was first used as a tonic after meals. The word Balsamic comes from the Latin balsamam meaning curative or restorative. Balsamic vinegar was first made in the 10th century in the Emilio Romana region of Italy and it was centuries before it wandered into the kitchen and changed forever the way we add flavor to so many foods.

We have the science today to know why our early forebears found such relief in a sip or two of the sweet, thick juice. Balsamic vinegar levels blood sugar and aids digestion. It has more antioxidants than blueberries and keeps blood platelets healthy. At Ah love Oil & Vinegar, we feature a selection of rich balsamic from a producer in Modena, Italy. I often tell customers that while we look like a specialty food store, we are, in fact, a pharmacy; that's how good these foods are for us. I recommend to all of our customers at least two tablespoons of good quality olive oil and one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar per day. At the very least, they will bring an abundance of flavor to your everyday meals.

However, I am not a doctor, I am a foodie, so I'll move on to the centuries that balsamic was a featured culinary treasure. Let's begin with how it is made.

True balsamic is made in one region of Italy, specifically the towns of Reggio Emilio and Modena and only from white Trebbiano and red Lambrusco grapes. It is a pure grape product; no additives. I'm sorry to tell you that most of what is labeled as balsamic in our groceries is red wine vinegar with caramel and other sweeteners or even gluten products added.

The whole grapes are cooked in large cauldrons at high temperatures for days to create a thick black must. The skins, seeds and stems are filtered out and the remaining grape must is put into large oak barrels in attics, not cellars like wine. Over a period of at least 12 years, the thick liquid is moved to five smaller barrels of different woods. The heat of the attic and the smaller barrels encourage the evaporation of water leaving an amazingly complex flavor -- concentrated natural sweetness with a little acidity; it is perfection.

During those years, producers will take some older balsamic and add it to the barrels for flavor. For this reason, it is impossible to put an exact age on a balsamic. Therefore, balsamic ratings are important to understand so you know what you're getting. Any balsamic more than three years in the barrel can be called 'aged.' But, we recommend looking for a balsamic that is closer to 12 years in the barrel for a deeper, richer taste.

There was a time when all balsamic was made by small family producers and highly prized; in fact, an old balsamic often went off with daughters as a dowry. Today, there are larger, commercial producers using the same centuries-old methods, but in large enough quantities to offer 12-20 year balsamic at reasonable prices - $15-30 per bottle.

The most highly prized balsamics are given the designation Tradizionale. They must be sold in special bottles and have specially colored seals to indicate their age and endorsement by the local consortia. Extravecchio (extra old) is the most prized designation a balsamic can obtain and are generally over 25 years old.

Some will release the vinegar at three years or 10 years. Frankly, this just doesn't do the concept justice. A truly wonderful craft is worth waiting for, so don't spend your money on a three-year old balsamic when you get something at a reasonable price that is 12 or more years in age; the difference is indescribable.

Enough about history, let's get to eating. Afterall, balsamic is a healthy, delicious addition to your pantry. It is low in calories and sugar (14 calories per tablespoon and only three grams of natural sugar). A true balsamic has no added sugar, preservatives or chemicals, is rich in flavor and has a very, very long shelf life. Here are some creative ways to incorporate this nectar into you diet.

  • Salad dressing -- place in your blender or bowl, add shallot, garlic, herbs, an egg yolk or teaspoon of Dijon style mustard. While blending or whisking, slowly drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil. The taste is amazing. I have provided a favorite recipe below.
  • Drizzled over vegetables and fruit -- raw vegetables and fruit become exotic when drizzled with a bit of aged balsamic. Ripe fresh strawberries or grilled peaches and an aged balsamic will take your breath away.
  • Drizzle over ice cream, frozen yogurt, creme brule, and custard
  • Make a sauce with au jus -- place au jus in a saucepan, add balsamic and cook over medium-high heat stirring until thickened. Drizzle over meat.
  • Marinate -- using a three to one ratio, oil to vinegar, marinate poultry or meat in extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic. If grilling, brush with marinade while cooking. The sugars in the balsamic will caramelize forming a nice crust.
  • Drizzle on cheese and cured meats like salami, salumi and proscuitto.

Find a specialty food store that allows you to taste infused balsamic and different age ranges. I love using infused balsamic in creative recipes. Here are some of our favorites:

Make your own vitamin water using 1/4 cup Cucumber Melon Balsamic in a pitcher of water; add sliced cucumbers and refrigerate until cold.

We have become well-known for our Balsamic bubbly at Ah love. Stir two tablespoons of Cranberry Balsamic into Prosecco and float frozen sugared cranberries. A wonderful holiday treat.

Reduce sugar in baking by replacing 1/2 with balsamic. (See our website for Harvest Pumpkin Bread made with blood orange olive oil and pumpkin spice balsamic).

Harvest Salad
serves 4
1/4 cup Pistachio Balsamic
1/2 garlic clove
1/2 shallot
1 teaspoon Fig Mustard (or any Dijon style mustard)
1/2 cup Sun-Dried Tomato Olive Oil
1/2 cup Toasted Pistachios
2 whole Roma tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Gorgonzola or Goat Cheese
1/2 cup Dried Cranberries
1 cup roasted butternut squash, cubed
Arugula and Mache (or greens that you love, Red Leaf and Butter are also great)
Sea Salt, ground pepper

Place washed greens, cranberries, tomatoes in a bowl. Toast pistachios on a baking sheet at 400º just until they begin to turn golden; about 10 minutes.

Take cubed squash and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake at 400º until fork-tender, about 10 minutes

Put balsamic, garlic, shallot and mustard in a blender and turn on to a medium speed. With blender running, very slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the dressing thickens. When you are out of olive oil, it is ready.

Add cooled squash and cheese to greens and toss with about 4 tablespoons of dressing. The rest will keep in your refrigerator a week. Sprinkle salad with toasted pistachios.

Honey Date Balsamic with Blood Orange Olive Oil
Replace cranberries with chopped dates or figs and pistachios with toasted walnuts

Eat well and play with your food!

Cary is the owner of Ah love Oil & Vinegar, food specialty stores in Arlington and Fairfax, VA. She is committed to promoting artisan-crafted foods and focuses on products that have few steps between the earth and table. She looks for food-crafters who make one thing with integrity and quality. Ah love Oil & Vinegar is a museum to these crafters' work to which you are invited to come and taste. Cary loves meeting the producers and hearing about the passion they have for their work and is proud to be part of the growing specialty food movement.