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The Basics

What is Vinegar?

It is intriguing to think that in today’s computerized, sophisticated world, we’re still using one product which was discovered - quite by chance - more than 10,000 years ago.

Vinegar. Simplicity itself (though its manufacture today is anything but.) The French said it succinctly: vinaigre - meaning sour wine. That is its origin, the discovery that a cask of wine gone past its time had turned to a wonderful new product. Through the centuries vinegar has been produced from many other materials including molasses, sorghum, fruits, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains and whey. But the principle remains unchanged - fermentation of natural sugars to alcohol and then secondary fermentation to vinegar.

The ancients were quick to find the remarkable versatility of vinegar. The Babylonians used it as a preservative and as a condiment and it was they who began flavoring it with herbs. Roman legionnaires used it as a beverage. Cleopatra demonstrated its solvent property by dissolving precious pearls in it to win a wager that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. Hippocrates extolled its medicinal qualities and, indeed, it was probably one of our earliest remedies. Biblical references show how it was much used for its soothing and healing properties. And when Hannibal crossed the Alps, it was vinegar which helped pave the way. Obstructive boulders were heated and doused with vinegar, which cracked and crumbled them.

As recently as World War I, vinegar was being used to treat wounds. And today it is recommended for treatment of rashes, bites and other minor ailments when camping.

How is Vinegar Made?

Vinegar is made by two distinct biochemical processes, both the result of the action of microorganisms. The first process is brought about by the action of yeasts, which change natural sugars to alcohol under controlled conditions. This is called the alcoholic fermentation. The second process results from the action of a group of bacteria ("Acetobacter") upon the alcohol portion, converting it to acid. This is the acetic or acid fermentation that forms vinegar. Proper bacterial cultures are important; timing is important; and fermentation should be carefully controlled.

Vinegar can be made from any fruit, or from any material containing sugar. The following recognized varieties of vinegar are classified according to material from which they are made and method of manufacturing: Vinegar made from the two-fold fermentation of the juices of various fruits. Apple juice is most commonly used, but other notable fruits, such as grapes, peaches and berries are very satisfactory. Labels will describe starting materials, such as "apple cider vinegar," or "wine vinegar" or "rice wine vinegar."

  • Malt vinegar, made by the two-fold fermentation of barley malt or other cereals where starch has been converted to maltose.
  • Sugar vinegar, made by the two-fold fermentation of solutions of sugar syrup or molasses.
  • Spirit or distilled vinegar, made by the acetic fermentation of dilute distilled alcohol.

What is "Mother"?

"Mother" of vinegar will naturally occur in vinegar products as the result of the vinegar bacteria itself. Mother is actually cellulose (a natural carbohydrate which is the fiber in foods like celery and lettuce) produced by the harmless vinegar bacteria. Today, most manufacturers pasteurize their product before bottling to prevent these bacteria from forming mother while sitting on the grocery store shelf.

After opening, you may notice mother beginning to form. Vinegar containing mother is not harmful or spoiled. Just remove the substance by filtering and continue to enjoy the product.

How long does vinegar last?

It confirmed that its shelf life is almost indefinite. Because of its acid nature, vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. White vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time. And, while some changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color changes or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change. The product can still be used with confidence.

What is Balsamic Vinegar?

True Balsamic Vinegar only comes from Modena and Reggio in the northern part of Italy, near the gulf of Genoa. It is made from unfermented juice from white grapes know as "must" which has high sugar content and is typically found in trebbiano grapes.

When the juice begins to ferment, it is cooked in a copper kettle until about one-third of it has evaporated. Bacteria culture is usually obtained by adding vinegar which contains active bacteria. Finally, the balsamic vinegar is placed in wooden barrels to age. Here, it will evaporate by about 10% per year. Thus, 12-25 years later a 100-liter container has been reduced to 15 liters.

During the aging process, as the vinegar evaporates it is transferred to smaller barrels. It starts out in oak barrels and sometimes is transferred to cherry wood for its sweetness, then perhaps mulberry and juniper for their spicy aromas, or ash for its sense of propriety.

True balsamic vinegar is very dark in color, has a sweet, fruity flavor and a syrupy-type consistency. Surprisingly, true balsamic vinegar is usually not found in super markets. There, one will generally find commercial grade balsamic vinegar that is made up of red wine vinegar mixed with must and caramel. About 75% of commercial grade balsamic vinegar is pure red wine vinegar with no must. Commercial grade is much lighter in color and has a strong acid taste and smell to it.

Twelve years is the minimum aging for true balsamic vinegar. If you see extravecchio (extra old), it means it is over twenty-five years old. You will find it sold only in 100 ml bottles and the product from Modena uniformly uses bottles designed by Giorgetto Giugiario.

The absolute premium product is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (ABT). The key word to focus on is Tradizionale, because that is the one guarantee you have bought the "real thing", a condiment formerly reserved for nobility, the highest art of vinegar production and whose creation is carefully regulated by a five member taste panel which assigns the coveted labels and/or caps and fills the bottles themselves to prevent any shenanigans.

Quick recap.

The procedure for super-premium balsamic vinegar is:

  1. Pure Trebbiano grape juice
  2. Reduced in an open container with nothing added except perhaps a little "mother"
  3. Aged in a variety of flavor enhancing wooden casks
  4. For a minimum of twelve years to complete the maturing/mellowing of the vinegar. If it passes the taste test of the five randomly chosen (but from a board of carefully trained tasters), it shall be granted the right to be called "Tradizionale".

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