This D.O.P.-certified balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy is top-tier quality.
Aged for 25 years, this is some of the best balsamic vinegar on the market. Users like its thick consistency and woody aroma. Just a few drops adds a ton of flavor.
It's quite expensive.
An affordable set of flavored balsamic vinegars. Makes a great gift.
Includes 4 bottles (pear, raspberry, fig, and pomegranate) of great-tasting balsamic. Vinegar is sourced from Italy and is organically produced. Great for marinades, salad dressings, and sauces.
Some reviewers note the consistency is a bit thin.
A D.O.P.-certified balsamic, aged up to 18 years. Comes in an 8.5-fluid-ounce bottle.
A thick consistency and rich taste make this a great substitute for more expensive options. Comes in a nice bottle. Does not contain added preservatives. A great value buy.
Some complain the vinegar is overly sweet.
A high-quality balsamic produced in Modena, Italy. Comes in an 8.5-fluid-ounce bottle.
Has an affordable price tag. Vinegar also features a thick consistency and smooth taste. Reviewers love the complex flavors offered by this balsamic.
Some isolated complaints of vinegar tasting too acidic and sweet.
A unique spray bottle makes this vinegar perfect for lightly misting salads.
Inexpensive and comes in a 2-pack. Spray applicator makes it easy to control amount applied to food. Users agree the vinegar has a great taste.
Very small quantity.
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Whether drizzled over strawberries, whisked into salad dressing, or added to soups or stews for depth of flavor, balsamic vinegar is a deliciously versatile ingredient. The trouble is, not all balsamic is created equal. Some balsamic vinegar has the kind of rich and complex flavor foodies will pay extra for, whereas other options are lackluster.
But what is the difference between different balsamic vinegars, and how do you tell them apart? We’ve compiled all our balsamic vinegar know-how into this handy guide so you can find the best balsamic for your culinary needs.
What is balsamic vinegar?
What makes balsamic vinegar different from other vinegars? Balsamic vinegar is either wholly or partially made from grape must (crushed grape juice, including the stems, seeds, and skins) from the Italian regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The must is simmered to make a concentrate and then aged in wooden barrels. This gives balsamic vinegar its distinctive color, consistency, and flavor.
You’ll find three main varieties of balsamic vinegar: traditional, condiment, and salad.
Traditional balsamic vinegar
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made using traditional methods. It must be produced in Reggio Emilia or Modena using grapes from the region, fermented, and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years. Due to evaporation that occurs during the aging processes, it’s thick, dark brown, and glossy, pouring more like a syrup than a standard vinegar. It should taste sweet, rich, and complex, with a slight tartness but not the high acidity you expect from other vinegars.
You can identify traditional balsamic vinegar by the words “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” on the bottle and its DOP seal. You should never cook with traditional balsamic vinegar, as you’ll lose some of the subtle flavors. Instead drizzle it over anything from risotto to vanilla ice cream.
Condiment balsamic vinegar
Condiment balsamic is a step down from traditional balsamic, but it’s still very good, as long as you choose the right bottle. It may be labelled “Aceto Balsamico Condimento,” and although it won’t have the DOP seal, it should carry an IGP stamp. Decent condiment balsamics may also feature the seal of the Consorzio di Balsamico Condimento, an organization that monitors the quality of condiment balsamic vinegars.
The difference between condiment balsamic and traditional balsamic is that it doesn’t have to be made in accordance with the rules that govern traditional balsamic vinegar. As such, it may be aged for fewer than 12 years or made outside of Modena or Reggio Emilia. Because there aren’t any strict rules surrounding its production, quality varies, but a nice aged bottle should be thick and sweet like traditional balsamic. Again, this grade of balsamic is for light drizzling, rather than cooking.
Salad balsamic vinegar
Salad balsamic is the name sometimes given to the lowest-quality balsamic vinegar. It may also be referred to as “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP.” It doesn’t need to be made from grapes grown in Modena, but they must be typical of the region, and the vinegar should be processed in Modena. It isn’t fermented and can be aged for a minimum of just two months. Because not much flavor is developed in this short time, it’s mixed with wine vinegar.
Although salad balsamic vinegar doesn’t have anywhere near the subtle yet complex flavors of high-end balsamic vinegars, it’s the product you should use if you want to cook with balsamic, rather than drizzling it onto dishes. It’s also often mixed with other ingredients to make salad dressings.
Of course, age is not the only factor that influences the flavor of balsamic vinegar – everything from the type of wood the aging barrels are made of to the quality of the grape harvest can affect the finished product – but age is a good indicator of the richness and complexity of a balsamic vinegar.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is usually aged anywhere from 12 years (balsamics of this age are graded “affinato”) to 25 years (balsamics of this age are graded “extra vecchio”). That said, you can find even older balsamic vinegars – aged for as long as 45 to 100 years – though expect a suitably high price tag.
Condiment-grade balsamics tend to be aged for fewer years, but some may be aged for as long as five to 10 years. They don’t have quite the same smoky notes and complexities as older balsamics, nor are they as viscous, but they are still sweet, mellow, and relatively thick. Since salad balsamics are only aged for a few months, there’s not much point comparing them to aged options, but they still have their uses.
You can find flavored balsamics infused with a wide range of ingredients, from garlic and chili to lemon and peach. There are generally two schools of thought on flavored balsamics. Some people love them for dipping bread or making salad dressings and think they jazz up an otherwise unremarkable balsamic, whereas others think there’s no need to add anything extra to a good balsamic.
There’s no right or wrong here. If you’re looking for a high-end traditional balsamic, you’re probably not interested in flavored balsamics. However, if you’re looking for a salad balsamic that’s a little bit different, flavored options may appeal to you.
You’re probably used to standard dark balsamic, but did you know you can also buy white balsamic vinegar? Like standard balsamic vinegar, white balsamic starts with grape must. But while the grape must that’s used to make dark balsamic is simmered until caramelized, white balsamic is reduced in a pressure cooker to avoid caramelization and is aged for a maximum of only a few years.
Many experts argue that white balsamic vinegar isn’t true balsamic. That said, plenty of chefs love using it in cooking for its tart, slightly sweet flavor, which is much lighter and fresher than standard balsamic vinegars.
Salad balsamic vinegars tend to cost very little. The cheapest options may cost less than $.50 per ounce, though some can cost as much as $2 per ounce.
Condiment balsamic vinegars generally cost between $5 and $10 per ounce, but you can spend up to $50 per ounce on well-aged options.
Traditional balsamic vinegars range from around $30 per ounce up to $300 per ounce for rare 100-year-aged bottles.
Watch out for impostors. Some vinegars are labeled “balsamic vinegar” but don’t actually contain grape must at all. They won’t taste how you expect balsamic to taste.
Cheap balsamic vinegars have their place. You might not want to drizzle it over your entree, but salad balsamic vinegars are great for adding a dash of flavor while cooking or even boiling down into a balsamic reduction.
Just because it says “Modena” doesn’t mean it tastes good. Some poor Modena vinegars are made for the American market. Instead look out for the DOP seal or approval from the Consorzio di Balsamico Condimento.
Try before you buy. If this is your first time buying balsamic vinegar, you don’t have to choose the most expensive bottle. That said, a very cheap bottle won’t be representative of the true balsamic flavor. If you can, ask for a sample.
There are plenty of excellent balsamic vinegars out there that deserve an honorable mention. If you’re looking for a top-notch balsamic vinegar and have a sizeable budget, Rossi Barattini Extravecchio “Reserve” 25 Year Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is an outstanding product. This is a thick, sweet balsamic with complex flavors that’s incomparable to most grocery store offerings. Buyers on a smaller budget who still want a quality product should consider La Vecchia Dispensa Balsamic Vinegar, a condiment balsamic aged for 10 years. It might not be quite as tasty as a traditional balsamic, but it can hold its own. Another similar option is Compagnia Del Montale Balsamic Vinegar Vigna Oro, a well-balanced condiment balsamic aged for a minimum of 10 years.
Q. What can I use balsamic vinegar for?
A. You can use balsamic vinegar in a wide range of ways. Just a small drizzle of the high-end stuff can turn a simple dish of roasted vegetables or a bowl of vanilla ice cream into something special. You can use cheaper vinegars that are suitable for cooking in various recipes, including sauces, soups, glazes, and marinades. And, of course, olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a classic salad dressing.
Q. Does balsamic vinegar contain any sweeteners or thickeners?
A. Traditional and condiment balsamic vinegars get all their flavor and consistency from the aging process, which turns the vinegar thicker and sweeter with every year. Salad balsamics sometimes try to recreate these properties with ingredients that color, thicken, and sweeten the vinegar.
Q. Are all balsamic vinegars made in the Reggio Emilia and Modena regions?
A. While not all balsamic vinegars are made in Modena or Reggio Emilia, only vinegars made in those areas can be sold as “Aceto Basilico Tradizionale” (traditional balsamic vinegar). Those made using the same traditional methods but in a different area can only be classed as condiment balsamics.