Adios balsamic. Hello, red wine vinegar.
By Valerie Strauss,
I am thoroughly sick of balsamic vinegar.
I’m tired of its raisiny taste, which is too often saccharine and cloying. And of its syrupy density, not to mention its distinct aroma.
I am fed up with chefs who have insisted on using it to dress salads, marinate poultry, glaze meat and “enliven” grilled vegetables, fruit, cheese and God knows what else.
I am so over balsamic vinegar that I have pushed my bottles to the back of my pantry. In their place: red wine vinegar. That old, acidic staple we used to sprinkle on iceberg when that was the only lettuce around.
Yes, I know that red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar aren’t interchangeable. Yet I find that I can do just as much with red wine vinegar and enjoy it more. Red wine vinegar is more acidic than balsamic, which, for someone looking for a clean flavor zing, is a good thing.
Besides, if it’s good enough for French cooks, for whom red wine vinegar is a basic, it’s good enough for me.
I’m now using red wine vinegar as my go-to base for vinaigrettes; a delicious Arabian tomato salad I make would be deficient without it. I add it to sauces, including the very best sesame noodle sauce I’ve ever eaten, and to marinades for chicken and beef.
Some of my favorite soups, such as lentil, now feature red wine vinegar, often splashed in at the end to brighten things up. I prefer gazpacho with red wine vinegar even when sherry vinegar is the classic choice. I like my french fries dressed with red wine vinegar, rather than the traditional malt vinegar, which to me comes on strong — more like beer. I’ve been thinking about making a beef stew with sugar and red wine vinegar for that sweet-sour, agrodolce effect.
As its name suggests, red wine vinegar is made from wine allowed to ferment until it becomes sour, at which point it is usually bottled. (The better the wine, the better the vinegar.) Artisanal vinegars are allowed to age in wooden barrels, sometimes for a few years, sometimes longer, a process that allows the taste to become more complex. A vinegar’s flavor mellows the longer it is allowed to age. (Forum’s Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar from Spain is aged for eight years; we included it in our accompanying Taste Test.)
The best balsamic vinegars are made in Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy, from one of several speciality varieties of grapes. For example, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is made from white and sugary Trebbiano grapes grown around Modena, as is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is made from grape “must” (juice) from Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana and Montuni grapes. These special vinegars are aged for at least 12 years and up to 25 years. They are delicious and best consumed unadorned, as a condiment, not mingled with other ingredients. Other balsamics, from North America and elsewhere, are made from wine vinegar blended with grape juice. They can be good, but the product isn’t the same.
That didn’t stop a balsamic craze from developing over the past several decades, sparked by the introduction of Modena Balsamic in the United States in the late 1970s, according to Fine Cooking magazine. Adding balsamic vinegar instantly elevated a dish from ordinary to, well, “gourmet.” You’d get recipes with names like Bacon-Wrapped Trout Stuffed with Balsamic Onion Compote in Rosemary Cream Sauce — as if plain old onion compote just wouldn’t do.
“When you saw balsamic used at restaurants like Applebee’s, it was a sign that it was time to move on,” says Jeffrey Buben, chef-owner of Vidalia and Bistro Bis in the District. “For general consumption, balsamic is way overused. But that's what keeps us moving forward in food. We find new things, we experiment, and at some point it’s time to try something different.”
In this case, moving on for me is moving back.
One of the beauties of red wine vinegar is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money. But you can. Katz Trio goes for about $10 (375 ml), and others cost more than double that. For a few dollars a bottle, though, you can enjoy, say, Pompeian red wine vinegar, which is made right in Baltimore.
Pompeian is the No. 1 selling brand in the gourmet wine vinegar segments in both red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar, according to independent sales data provided by Richard Fryling, the company’s vice president for marketing.
He said product innovation took Pompeian to the top. Capitalizing on the antioxidant trend in 2005 and 2006, Pompeian began infusing its red wine vinegars with antioxidant-laden ingredients such as blueberry, acai and pomegranate.
Pompeian makes its red wine vinegar through a fermentation process that uses a unique blend of domestic wines and sherry imported from the Spanish region of Jerez.
According to the Vinegar Institute, a marketing group that represents the vinegar industry, there are no real standards of identity for vinegar worldwide. But there are eight varieties classified by the Food and Drug Administration for labeling purposes according to the vinegars’ starting ingredients and method of production: cider or apple vinegar; wine or grape vinegar; malt vinegar; sugar vinegar (which includes sugar syrup or molasses); spirit or distilled vinegar; blended vinegar made from spirit and cider vinegars; rice or rice wine vinegar; and balsamic.
You can find specialty vinegars in flavors you might never have considered: aloe vera, lemon, banana, cranberry. White distilled vinegar sells the most, according to the Vinegar Institute, but, then again, it’s used for cleaning as well as cooking.
At Vidalia, Buben says, balsamic is only used as a condiment, if customers request it. At Bistro Bis, vinaigrettes are mostly made with red wine vinegar because “it has the right acid level and a nice concentration of the right acidity and fruitness.”