I already make room in my small pantry for eight or so vinegars: red wine, white wine or Champagne, cider, sherry, rice wine, tomato (excellent for meat marinades), and two kinds of balsamic -- an inexpensive one that I reduce to glaze fish, chicken or pork, and a small bottle of a pricey, aged balsamic, bought on an Italian vacation, that I drizzle on chips of good Parmesan or sweet strawberries. I also keep a bottle of white vinegar on hand, more often used for cleaning than cooking, although I sometimes use it in canning and pickling.
I'm not a fan of flavored vinegars, like raspberry or garlic. I simply don't have the pantry space and besides, I can add those flavors in better ways, as by using fresh raspberries or garlic instead of whatever's been added to the vinegar.
But recently I've made room for one more. White balsamic vinegar.
Before explaining the white version, let's first remember its more familiar and darker counterpart: balsamic vinegar. Made for centuries in Modena, Italy (birthplace of Luciano Paverotti, if you'd like a little food/opera trivia), balsamic vinegar is produced using a method similar to that for making wine. The vinegar is made from the must -- the unfermented juice -- of Trebbiano grapes. Sweet and white, the must is caramelized (this is where the dark color comes from) and then aged in wood barrels for 12 to 25 years. Any less time and it's not authentic balsamic.
The longer the aging, the more intense the flavor and viscous the liquid and higher the price. Some balsamics, especially those aged for more than 20 years, can cost hundreds of dollars for 4 ounces. But you're saying, "I buy balsamic for less than $10 all the time." What you're probably buying is balsamic that has been aged for less than 12 years to which wine vinegar and maybe also sugar have been added. For those of us who love balsamic's distinctive wine-y flavor, these are good choices, especially if your goal is to use them in salad dressings when the vinegar is combined with other ingredients (which in my opinion would be a waste of $25+ an ounce vinegar).
Back to white balsamic. The same as its darker, better-known version, white balsamic is also produced from Trebbiano must using the same simmering method but care is taken to not produce any caramelization so to keep its color light. It's also aged for less time. The result is vinegar that has balsamic's unique sweet and sour flavor but with a lighter color and taste. And even though it's called "white," in fact it has a golden color. A good quality white balsamic can cost about $10 to $15 for 500 ml. As is the case with regular balsamic, some white balsamics have a slightly syrupy viscosity.
As with any food purchase, you should know what you're buying which is why it makes sense to use white balsamic vinegars that are imported and sold by good companies.
Fairway, NYC's iconic grocer, has a superb selection of all kinds of vinegars, but their selection of balsamics -- both dark and white -- is especially notable. For this we should thank Steve Jenkins, who during his decades with Fairway has, among other things, developed the company's cheese department and also guides its specialty import products including its outstanding Fairway label olive oils and vinegars. Steve is a big fan of white balsamic vinegar. "Ours is made in Italy using a traditional method and is the real-deal. At home in my own kitchen we use it constantly because its flavor is so soft." Fairway's white balsamic has only 4 percent acidity and has a slightly syrupy body.
If you don't live in NYC and can't get to Fairway, another brand to look for is by Roland Foods, the specialty importer of fine foods. Their excellent white balsamic vinegar is imported from Italy and has 6 percent acidity. Roland also imports a lovely rosé balsamic, a new product from Italy that has 5 percent acidity and makes a wonderful glaze for fish.
Other good brands I have used include O and Acetaia Catani.
Because the white version has balsamic's distinctive taste without any sweet or sour aggression, it is an excellent choice for glazes, sauces (when you want a subtle hit of acid), or marinades. It can also be a good choice for deglazing a pan, especially for those who avoid alcohol and thus won't use wine.
Fine Cooking Magazine recently featured a recipe that uses white balsamic vinegar as a marinade for boneless pork chops, with the reserved marinade later becoming a quick sauce. This recipe has become a regular go-to weeknight supper in my kitchen and I love how I can have the ingredients on hand (including the pork chops in my freezer) in case I don't have time to grocery shop. I can transfer the chops from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before and the marinade only takes 20 minutes. See our link to the recipe.
Next, here's a balsamic vinaigrette with lots of complexity, adapted from a recipe at Food52.com that is particularly good with mixed salads that contain meat, such as duck or pork prosciutto or a classic Cobb with bacon and blue cheese. The original recipe called for a teaspoon of honey, which I think makes the dressing a little too sweet given balsamic's already sweet high notes; I leave it out but if you prefer a sweeter flavor, include it:
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Optional: 1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
Several grinds of black pepper
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
In a small bowl whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, and if you're including it, the honey, and salt and pepper until the salt dissolves and the mustard and honey combine. Add the olive oil and whisk until the dressing emulsifies. Taste and adjust for salt, pepper and the balance of sweet, sour and oiliness. Makes about 1/2 cup.
You can make this dressing in advance and refrigerate until needed. Just remember to give it another whisking before adding to your salad.
Another excellent use for white balsamic vinegar is when you want to create agridolce flavors -- ones that are sweet and sour, as is often found in Sicilian food. In a recipe from a 2004 issue of Gourmet (will I ever stop mourning that magazine?), white balsamic is added to a shallot and raisin sauce for striped bass. Because the sauce can be made in advance, this could be a show-stopping dish for a summer dinner party. Here's a link to the recipe.
A final comment about vinegar cremas or glazes, a relatively new product that is increasingly easy to find in grocers and specialty shops. I know home cooks who love them, and they are extremely convenient, but I don't use them. First of all, they're a product made out of lower quality vinegar, if it's even balsamic vinegar to begin with. Sold in small, frosted plastic squeeze bottles, these are reductions of vinegar to which coloring and flavoring is added and to me they taste like sugared balsamic syrup. Second, they're pricey given the cost of the product inside the bottles.
Instead, if you want a syrupy vinegar glaze-like product, you can instead purchase inexpensive balsamic and simmer a cup or so in a small saucepan until it reduces, about 5 to 8 minutes depending on how much you're making. You'll make the same thing as what's in those squeeze bottles for a fraction of the cost and with a better flavor.
We're approaching the peak of summer ingredients and most of us will be making lots of salads and serving fresh, local fruit. Like the strawberries I bought last week that had a heady perfume that filled my building's elevator as I brought my Greenmarket haul home. Or maybe you'll be roasting red peppers or making platters of sautéed zucchini, both of which call out for your best olive oil and a drizzle of good vinegar. So this summer, buy a bottle of white balsamic and add it to your summer kitchen. It just might stay there even when autumn comes around.