With such a wide variety of options and dramatically different price points, picking a good balsamic vinegar can be an intimidating task...
...and we're here to help! We all know and love balsamic as a salad-dressing star, a delicious marinade, the perfect drizzle over summer tomatoes, and so much more. While many of us have our preferred bottles of balsamic that end up being our go-to picks, there really is a lot to learn about the vinegar in order to be able to choose the best one. So, let's get right into it - our guide on how to choose a good balsamic vinegar!
What is balsamic vinegar?
Balsamic vinegar is made from the leftover grape must (aka, whole crushed grapes) in wine production. It traditionally originated from both Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. To this day, traditional balsamic vinegar is still only made in these regions - and using the same methods, too. The grape must gets cooked low and slow, until it reduces to the dark, sweet and syrupy consistency we love.
That reduced juice then gets aged in barrels, and the fermentation process begins. The variety of wood these barrels can be made from - such as chestnut, oak or cherry - all play a significant role in the resulting flavor of the vinegar. The vinegar gets transferred to continuously smaller barrels over the course of at least 12 years, as the amount of liquid slowly evaporates. The longer a balsamic vinegar is aged, the thicker and more syrupy the consistency will be. Due to this aging process and fermentation, not only is the resulting product delicious, but it contains healthy probiotics and beneficial enzymes!
What's the deal with different types of balsamic?
This is where things can get a bit confusing, but we're here to break it down.
Traditional balsamic vinegar must be made in Modena or Reggio Emilia in Italy, with only Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes. The labels may say "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" or "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia." These labels mean the balsamic has been aged for at least 12 years! That length of aging results in a unique, sweet, deep flavor with a deliciously syrupy consistency. Due to the long aging process, traditional balsamic is the highest quality balsamic you can get - and it's generally the most expensive (but with good reason!). These bottles will wear a D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) stamp — a European Union certification of the quality.
Condiment-grade balsamic, or condimento balsamico, refers to balsamic vinegars that don't quite fit the rigorous standards of traditional balsamic vinegar. Generally, it means the vinegar wasn't aged for a minimum of 12 years, was produced outside of Modena or Reggio Emilia, or wasn't produced under adequate supervision to meet the D.O.P. standards. That said, Condiment-grade balsamic is generally still very high quality, and certainly moreso than commercial varieties. Additionally, these bottles generally boast a lower price point. While they won't wear the esteemed D.O.P. label, they should have an I.G.P. stamp: "indicazione geografica protetta," aka, "protected geographical indication".
Commercial-grade balsamic is the catch-all term for the rest. This generally refers to mass-produces balsamics and tend to have more ingredients than just grape must - they make contain caramel color, added sugars, wine vinegars, thickeners, and more. There is no requirement of any aging for commercial-grade balsamic. Although they don't have the same quality as traditional or condiment-grade balsamic, we appreciate good commercial-grade ones for their uses: they're still great in marinades, in sauces, or to reduce into syrups. The best benefit of commercial-grade balsamic, of course, is that it's the cheapest choice of the bunch.
There are exceptions, of course - there are plenty of domestic-made balsamic vinegars that don't fall into the higher echelons of balsamic hierarchy, but are still wonderful products, such as Brightland's Rapture, Sparrow Lane, or California Balsamic Vinegar (among many others!).
What else do I need to know?!
Now that you've had the crash-course on balsamic vinegar, you're ready to buy the right type of balsamic vinegar for your needs.
Think about how you'll use it.
Traditional balsamic vinegar and condiment-grade are higher quality than commercial. If you're planning to host a nice dinner, want a seriously stand-out Caprese salad, or you're looking to give a bottle as a gift, choose one of those! We tend to keep commercial-grade balsamic in our pantries too, though, for different reasons - when it's not the time for balsamic to shine and be the main character, a good bottle of inexpensive balsamic can come in clutch to add a sour-sweetness to a recipe. (Of course, as mentioned above, there are plenty of fabulous vinegars made in the United States that don't fall into traditional or condiment status - that's when the due diligence comes into play!)
Read those ingredients.
While we have no issue with commercial-grade balsamic as a rule, we're not thrilled about some of the funky ingredients they have. Be sure to pay attention to the labels - especially on products labeled as balsamic "reductions" or "syrups" as they can contain many additives. We like to avoid any artificial colors (caramel coloring is a common lurker), lot of added sugars, thickeners and preservatives.
Additionally, the order of the ingredients is important. If "wine vinegar" or "white wine vinegar" are first on the list, it's not really balsamic at all!
Keep an eye out for the stamps and labels!
When a balsamic has a label to be proud of, it'll be shown front-and-center like a badge of honor. Seeing the words Modena or Reggio Emilia on the label is always a good sign, as balsamic is traditionally made in those regions. D.O.P. and I.G.P. stamps carry a lot of weight as well, and are a sign of high quality.
Look into the company!
Luckily, we almost all have computers in our pockets when we go grocery shopping. If you're curious about the quality of a particular vinegar, find the website of the brand you're looking at - you can learn a lot about a company's values that way.
Okay, so what do you recommend?
Luckily for you, Giada and the team have started stocking our pantry with our very favorite balsamic vinegars from Italy. Keep an eye out on our social media, too - we're always expanding and adding new favorites to the store.