Balsamic vinegar is a traditional Italian product that has its origins 1,000 years back in Medieval times. Its great popularity, however, especially among professional chefs and lovers of gourmet foods, has become worldwide in recent years. The traditional type of balsamic vinegar is very expensive, but the introduction of modern methods has created a cheaper variety. Some companies also mix the traditional and modern forms to render an “in-between” variety that balances cost and quality.
Image used under Creative Commons from Valerie Hinojosa
Traditionally, balsamic vinegar is made by heating and reducing freshly harvested white grape juice to 30 percent of its original volume. The residue, or “must,” is then put into wooden casks to slowly ferment. The aging process further concentrates and enhances the flavor.
The vinegar has a sweet and very “complex” flavor. Though it is considered a condiment, it is often the highlight of the dish it is dribbled on. Many Italian desserts and custards include balsamic vinegar topping. It is also delicious on top of fruits such as strawberries and pears. This vinegar also is used on fish, shrimp, scallops, steak, eggs, and even pastas. Some Italians love it so much, in fact, that they even indulge by drinking a small amount of it straight at the end of a hearty meal.
Storage of Balsamic Vinegar
The aging process takes anywhere from 12 to 25 years, and is accomplished in a cool, dry location. A portion of the vinegar will naturally evaporate as it sits and ferments, and this is referred to as “the angels’ share.” Many producers top off each cask from the next oldest one each year and also add a small amount of fresh must.
Though it ages to perfection in wooden casks in something resembling a wine cellar, it is typically sold in glass bottles. While in storage and still unopened, there is no limitation to how long it may last. That is, it could last 50 to 100 years.
Even after you open a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar, identified by the label “aceto balsamico tradizionale,” it should last indefinitely. Contact with the air should not affect it significantly. Just keep it in a cool, dark location. That can be your refrigerator, but a good pantry will do. Not only will the traditional variety stay good over the years, it even has a tendency to improve with time.
The cheaper versions may indeed go bad after a time since added preservatives and foreign flavorings are included. This is not likely to happen very soon, however. The acidity keeps it edible for many years.
Image used under Creative Commons from Mike Linksvayer
How to Tell If It’s Going Bad
If you notice that the taste has changed and is not as robust as it was when first opened, it is a sign of a loss of quality. The vinegar is still good to use, but after about three years from opening, it may deteriorate somewhat if it is not a traditional brand. You may also notice a slight change in coloration and/or a milky precipitate clinging to the inside of the bottle. Again, it has not “gone bad,” but it is no longer at its best.