Regular readers of this blog may have realized already that I hate getting stumped by my guests. I have spent thousands of hours researching food to prevent this from happening. Last night I was asked a question so simple I should have known the answer. They asked me what makes vinegar “balsamic.” One theory was that it was aged in balsa wood while another was that it was made of a particular grape. After the shift, I researched until I could find an answer. This post is dedicated to the guests at table 68.
Before I get to the answer though, I wanted to address olive oil as well. It’s like salt and pepper. Peanut butter and jelly. Simon and Garfunkel. You can have them separately, but they are so much better together. So today I wanted to explore some facts about both.
Olive oil is made in two methods. The traditional method involves crushing the olives with stones into a paste and then pressing them to extract the oil. The more modern method is to use stainless steel crushers and then extract the oil in a centrifuge. The modern method removes the oil similarly to how the spin cycle in a washing machine removes the water from clothes. The remaining olive paste does have a small amount of residual oil, which can be removed by heat or chemicals. The oil retrieved in this final step is generally considered of a far lesser quality. This is referred to as olive pomace oil.
When it comes to grading, things get far more complicated. The grades are determined by a rating system sanctioned by the International Olive Oil Council. This organization regulates the nations that produce more than 85% of olive oil. Unfortunately The United States is not a member. This means that labeling of olive oil bottled and sold in the US is not regulated and the terms on the bottle are more or less meaningless. Since the USDA does not recognize terms like “Extra Virgin”, any olive oil bottled in the US can place that on the label. American bottles may also often list on the front that they are from Italy when on the back they will list a different country as actually producing it. The perception is that Italian olive oil is superior. Therefore large olive oil producers like Spain, Greece, and Morocco will export oil to Italy in bulk for it to be imported to the US.
That may make the explanations far less exciting, but for olive oil bottled abroad, here are the meanings of the terms on the outside of the bottle:
Virgin Olive Oil: Comes from the first press of the olives. Has less than 2% acidity and flavor rated as “good.”
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: First press, less than 0.8% acidity and flavor rated as “superior.”
Pure Olive Oil or Olive Oil: A blend of virgin oil and filtered olive oil.
Olive Pomace Oil: A blend of virgin and primarily filtered pomace oil. This is a lower grade, but commonly used in restaurants because of its ability to withstand higher cooking temps than listed above.
Now back to balsamic vinegar. If you were disappointed in the olive oil grading, this is going to be even worse. True balsamic vinegar is aged for 12 years in a series of barrels of a variety of wood types that are gradually smaller as the process continues. None of the wood is balsa. The name comes from the word “balsam” which means to restore. True balsamic comes from the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions and is made of Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. This process is strictly regulated and if adhered to will be rewarded with a label that says: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. This can bring a price of between $25 and $100 per ounce. It will also be sold only in a bottle that looks like this:
There are two lower, but far more common grades of balsamic vinegar. “Condimento” grade covers a wide variety of production methods. It is difficult to determine quality from this classification, but is generally considered superior to the lowest and most common tier: “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.” This commercially produced vinegar is rarely aged and is made from other vinegars. Caramels, coloring agents, and thickeners are added to traditional wine vinegars to attempt to recreate the flavors of true balsamic vinegar.
The more I learn about food, the more I realize how important marketing is. From Kobe Beef to Fish labels can often be deceiving. It also means that a brand you like may be more important than the words on the outside of the bottle. I hope this has shed some light on these two common items and prevents you from getting stumped. Time for lunch here, I think it is time for a salad.