White Balsamic Vinegar
by Ari LeVaux
If you’re like me, you went through a balsamic vinegar phase soon after you “discovered” it.
Venturing beyond its traditional habitat in the salad bowl, or drizzled on the occasional strawberry, you poured it on rice, added it to your favorite pickle recipe, and perhaps even used it in a stir-fry.
In my case, at any point where the bite of a little acid was needed, I went with balsamic, until I was pretty much sick of it. Balsamic vinegar is not mayonnaise, I realized. It does not make everything taste better. There are places where the fruity, syrupy sweetness and wine-like complexity is too cloying, heavy and distracting. There are dishes that we do not want to taste like balsamic, and you have to pick your spots. Perhaps your balsamic phase ended with a similar resolution.
More recently I’ve become enamored with an offshoot of balsamic vinegar that’s a lot more versatile, and a lot harder to overdo. For years it went by the name white balsamic vinegar, as it’s made with similar ingredients.
Due to some legal constraints that I’ll discuss in a moment, it’s no longer available as white balsamic, but can be found under the names white Modena vinegar, or white Italian condiment.
Whatever you call it, many enthusiasts consider it simply to be an alternative to traditional red balsamic vinegar for those times when you want that sweet, tangy, balsamic-y complexity without the dark red color. But that simple distinction ignores the fact that the differences in flavor are significant.
It’s brighter, with more tang, with less heavy sweetness and a lighter finish. Unlike its darker cousin, white balsamic vinegar won’t hijack the flavor of your meal, and is content playing a supporting role. It’s also tremendously versatile, and even if you don’t love it enough to add to your A-list of condiments, it can be used in a pinch to substitute variously for rice vinegar, white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and even champagne vinegar. It’s near-impossible to confuse with its red cousin, even with your eyes closed.
The name “white balsamic” is no longer permitted in order to protect the “DOP” status of red, or true balsamic. DOP stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, which translates to Protected Designation of Origin. It can be found affixed to some of Italy’s finest and most celebrated foods, including cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, wine, prosciutto - even pesto.
Not all of these products get this designation by any means, not even the ones from Italy. Only the ones made with ingredients local to where the finished product was produced, and processed with rigid adherence to traditional production practices. The DOP designation marks many products imported to the United States, so if you’re in the market for an Italian product, and see that one of the options has the “DOP” designation, then your choice just became much easier.
Wine makers in Modena have been making balsamic vinegar for about 1,000 years, via a process similar to that of making wine. It’s made from white Trebbiano grapes from the Emilia-Romagna region.
The grapes are pressed into “must,” which is a mixture of grape juice and the leftover skins, seeds and stems from the grape clusters. The must is simmered for hours, during which time it caramelizes, darkens and thickens. The syrup that results is aged in barrels of oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, juniper and other types of wood. Often it’s more than one type of wood per batch.
The word “balsam” refers to a sticky resin that leaks out of cut trees and is used in perfume and other aromatic products, and these various types of woods help to explain why. Twelve-year old balsamic vinegar is the standard, though it’s possible to find bottles that have been aged 20 years or longer.
If you get your hands on some aged balsamic, it really is a treasure. A few drops, not nearly enough to add any significant amount of acid, will add untold levels of aromatic fruity complexity to a dish.
The white version is a much more of a common man’s vinegar, and isn’t available in DOP versions. With that being said, if I had to choose just one for my pantry, I would choose the lighter. Its production begins with the must of those same Trebbiano grapes. But in this case, white wine vinegar is added. The resulting mixture is cooked at a low temperature, to ensure it doesn’t caramelize or darken. It is sometimes aged in oak, other times in stainless steel, but never for more than a year.
White Italian condiment doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s a name worth getting used to, along with white Modena vinegar, if you want to acquire some. In the privacy of your own home you can call it what you wish. And whatever you call it, you should definitely use it.
While balsamic vinegar draws all the attention to itself, its lighter cousin does the opposite, so you won’t find dishes built around it. It’s a laborer in the kitchen, and does a great job on many fronts. You can deglaze with it, add it to marinades and even pickles.
I’ve written before about thin-sliced onions languishing in a white Italian condiment bath before being added to salads, and I stand behind that tactic. I’m also quite enthusiastic about drizzling some on my avocado toast, with olive oil, onion and tomato. Here are a few more recipe ideas for the other white vinegar.
In my home, our biggest use for white Italian condiment is in salad dressing. We do a mixture of 3 parts olive oil and 1 part vinegar, with the vinegar portion consisting of equal parts cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and white Italian condiment, with soy sauce to taste (optional). The pairing of three vinegars, two of which having balsamic tendencies, adds a sparkling depth to the dressing. Redundancy, at least in the context of food, can be a very good thing.
And finally, a simple Italian-style roasted red pepper snack: Halve and de-seed some red bell peppers and broil until the skin browns and blisters. Place in a paper bag and let them cool for about 10 minutes. Remove the skins, slice into bite-size pieces, and toss with olive oil, fresh pressed garlic, capers, and white Italian condiment. Season with salt, and serve.