Real, traditional balsamic vinegar is made only with sweet, white grapes. We use the classic Italian grapes, Trebbiano and Occhio di Gatto, plus a proprietary blend of others, most of which date to the Romans. So-called 'industrial' balsamic is made of many things, usually starting with various forms of any grape juice, probably from many sources and often from the 'low cost producer'. This mix usually includes coloring, caramel (or other sugar sources) for the "right" look and sweetness—and sometimes preservatives are added.
Remember, Italians call balsamic made in a slow, minimum 12 year process, using small casks of rare woods, 'traditional'. The most common, and most commonly used balsamic on the market is called 'industrial' since most are made in a factory in as little as a day. To be fair, for what they are and what they cost, they are fine.
(It's like the difference between herring roe and quality caviar. Each are fish eggs, both are good, yet each is quite different in appearance, taste, rarity and price.)
The more experience you have tasting these highs and lows, the more you learn about the impressive range and difference there is between them.
It is rare and it is expensive, but very little on our farm could be called elitist. We, like every farmer, want to add value to what we grow. Seldom however is time taken to add this value over at least 12 continuous years. It might be more accurate to call it "delayed gratification" on our end and a gratifyingly rare treat on the other.
The long, slow concentration of the original grape juice in traditional balsamic can be better understood as slowly packing flavors into a smaller and smaller space—with years of long exposure to rare woods. When the balsamic makes contact with your tongue or with the food you put it on, it unpacks with great power, projecting the fullest flavor of these foods. So, food doesn't just taste like it has vinegar on it; taste is much more fully expressed, whatever the food happens to be.
(Another useful food parallel is in the use of salt, which roughly functions similarly. It is added to enhance food taste, not make the food taste salty. Historically, salt was the most rare, most sought after, most expensive addition to food for its transformative abilities.)
Never cook the real stuff. That's a waste. Put it on foods, which, if cooked, are plated to serve. A few dots will spread out and deliver a whole new set of flavors in the food. Often, these are flavors in the food itself you otherwise would have missed.
Try any great balsamic all by itself. First, try the smallest drop to adjust your mouth, then in another a minute or so, try another small amount. You will experience a long series of differing tastes, each one a separate wood or grape flavor, woven into a changing pattern of sweet and sour expressions. All of these resolve in the back of the mouth, mid-tongue, into a long, woody conclusion. True traditional balsamic meet this general description, but, as with fine wines, each traditional balsamic will present its own character in a unique, pleasing and memorable way.
Pouring our aged balsamic on your salad is like pouring gold on it. We don't recommend any 12 year vinegar for salad, but it is a personal choice so go for it if you heart desires. Instead, we suggest using better quality 'industrial' or young balsamic or red wine vinegar on salads. Save the traditional balsamic to enhance roasted meats (especially wild game), grilled vegetables, fresh fruits (melons, berries, figs, peaches), ice cream, and hard Italian cheeses (like aged Parmigiano-Reggiano).
In Modena, Italy, the original home of traditional balsamic, it's not unusual to see it served on desserts like zabaione, crème caramel, and panna cotta. Famous chef and author Paul Bertolli, and American balsamic expert, says, "Perhaps the best way to enjoy old balsamic vinegar is to pour yourself a thimble glass full after dinner and savor it all by itself."
The idea of providing recipes generally is a false start. The concept of a recipe often suggests cooking, rather than more correctly just dripping balsamic on after cooking. Or it implies blending traditional balsamic with other ingredients. You will do what you choose, but cooking and blending miss the point of using—and clearly tasting—traditional balsamic.
That's an excellent comparison in that each great wine—with its different handling, separate grape terroir, selected barrels, etc.—provides an excellent gustatory experience to the taster without each wine having to taste like the other. They each are different expressions. That is true of all great, traditional balsamic, just as it is with wine.
Our very low humidity near the end of the Rocky Mountains of southern New Mexico drives evaporation more quickly than most places, even the original and fabulous classics made in Modena, Italy. For its age, ours is more viscous than most.
Also, our sweet/sour balance tends very slightly more to acid (which is usually in the range of 8%+), yet it never tastes vinegary like those with typical 6% acidity. Also, our grapes are grown in a stressed environment of high heat, high altitude with early spring frosts reducing our fruit set. This seems to increase the grape plants' energies directed to a smaller number of grapes. So, ours tastes unique to our place and truly like no other.
Cooks who reduce 'industrial' balsamic to make it thick like 'traditional' balsamic (usually to decorate and finish a plate) are working primarily in the visual, not gustatory, world. This cooked balsamic, we think, usually has a sticky mouth-feel and tastes at least a little (or maybe even very) muddy.
This manipulation of balsamic reminds us that balsamic is a popular thing, a popular taste, a popular idea. It's regularly listed on many menus. But the real stuff is too precious and too expensive to use in the majority of restaurants, which must constantly manage food costs. So, they get the best balsamic to fit their budget and simmer it to the right consistency (specifically, to look thick like 12 year or older traditional balsamic). Then, it is drizzled on the plate, helping the diner see they got what they ordered, and until it is tasted, all seems right in the world.
We have been registered, approved, and operating as organic farms since our beginning. The New Mexico Department of Agriculture/ Organic Program, one of the nation's best, most rigorous certifying organizations, continues to inspect our operation. We were instructed years ago to wait for actual product certification when we had finished balsamic for sale.
Then, in 2002 (the fifth year of our process), in order to create a national standard for the 50 states, USDA established the National Organic Program (NOP). We support this general concept. But the NOP put rules in place, which prevent any product made before 2002 from being "Certified Organic"—with no exceptions. We regret our exclusion due to chance, but we also know that our traditional balsamic is a worldwide rarity, made in keeping with organic rules dating back to our start of ageing in 1998.
Ours is still the traditional organic balsamic we set out to make, but it simply cannot be labeled "USDA Certified Organic".