Balsamic vinegar is a slightly sweet, dark, richly flavored vinegar used to enhance salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. It can be reduced to a glaze and drizzled over strawberries, stirred into a risotto, or tossed with Brussels sprouts or red onions to let its sugars caramelize in the oven.
But what is balsamic vinegar, really? How is it made? What’s the difference between white balsamic and regular balsamic vinegar? What makes some balsamic vinegar so expensive?
Earlier this year I spent a week in Italy on an intensive educational trip to learn about balsamic vinegar. I visited several commercial operations as a guest of the Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, as well as smaller traditional balsamic producers, and even an above-the-garage attic where a family has been making balsamic for their personal use for 60 years.
In this article I’ll cover where the tradition of balsamic vinegar comes from, and explain the different types of balsamic vinegar, the current modern practices of producing balsamic vinegar for broad consumption, and how to choose which balsamic vinegar to buy.
What Is Balsamic Vinegar?
Balsamic vinegar comes from an Italian vinegar making process dating back to the middle ages. There are two main types.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made only with one ingredient — "grape must" (in Italian, "mosto"), the sweet juice of freshly pressed grapes — that is boiled to a concentrate, fermented and acidified, and aged for 12 to 25 years or longer in wood barrels.
A highly crafted product, traditional balsamic vinegar is produced in small batches. It is sweet, tart, dark, syrupy, and expensive. You will only find this seriously pricy vinegar in a specialty store or online.
Modern commercial balsamic vinegars (what you will likely find at your local grocery store) combine concentrated grape must with wine vinegar to speed up the acidification process. This vinegar is typically aged from 2 months to 3 years in large oak barrels.
Mixing grape must with wine vinegar allows producers to make a high volume of balsamic vinegar much more efficiently than using the traditional method. Depending on the mix of sweet grape must and tart wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar can vary in its sweetness. It can range in consistency from thin to syrupy.
When you shop for balsamic vinegar, whether in grocery stores or online, you will find a variety of products:
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI — Balsamic vinegar imported from the Modena region of Italy, to be used for everyday consumption. If it has the IGP or PGI label (Protected Geographic Indication), it conforms to European Union (EU) production regulations. Prices range from $4 to $20 a bottle.
- Balsamic Vinegar (no mention of Modena on the label) — Balsamic vinegar for everyday use that may or may not come from Italy. If it doesn't have the PGI label, it may still come from Italy and it may be labeled "Balsamic Condiment". It may be good quality or it be imitation balsamic, which is just vinegar (no grape must) with added thickeners and sweeteners.
- White Balsamic — Similar to regular balsamic vinegar but with a light golden color
- Balsamic Glaze — Syrupy version of regular balsamic vinegar that has added sweeteners and/or thickeners
- Traditional balsamic vinegar — Small batch, highly crafted balsamic vinegar that can cost anywhere from $50 to $200 and more for a small bottle, available online and at specialty stores. If it has the DOP or PDO label (Protected Designation of Origin), it is from either Modena or Reggio Emilia and conforms to strict EU production regulations.
- Condimento Balsamico — Made in the style of traditional balsamic vinegar, but doesn't officially conform to EU standards. Some traditional balsamic producers offer "Condimento Balsamico" products that are grape must balsamic vinegars that are aged fewer than the 12 years required for official certification.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
All balsamic vinegar is derived from a thousand year old process developed around the area of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy, which is why we will start our deep dive into balsamic here.
As mentioned, traditional balsamic vinegar (a.k.a. "aceto balsamico tradizionale") is made from "grape must" which is the juice from freshly pressed grapes.
Grape must is the only ingredient in traditional balsamic vinegar.
To conform with European Union standards, the grapes are required to be grown in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions and are usually white Trebbiano and Lambrusco varieties. The grape must is boiled in huge cauldrons outdoors over open flame to reduce its volume and concentrate its sugars, and then it ferments and acidifies over time in wooden barrels.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of successively smaller wooden barrels, each made from a different type of wood — oak, juniper, mulberry, ash, cherry, and chestnut.
As the vinegar ages in the barrels, it acquires flavors from the wood, and its acidity mellows. Because the wood is porous the vinegar loses moisture over time, and becomes more concentrated, eventually reaching a syrupy consistency.
Each season some of the vinegar is pulled from the smallest barrel to be bottled, and then the vinegar in that barrel is replenished from vinegar in the next larger barrel, and so on up the line of barrels.
Given the effort it takes to make traditional balsamic vinegar, it’s no wonder that the production volume is low and the prices are high!
Modena and Reggio Emilia Protected Designation of Origin (DOP)
Official traditional balsamic comes only from two areas — Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.Both Modena and Reggio Emilia have a special “DOP” (Protected Designation of Origin) designation from the European Union, with strict rules for production and marketing.
For Modena, bottles can only be labeled as having vinegar that is either aged 12 or 25 years. For Reggio Emilia, the vinegar can be labeled as having been aged 12, 18, or 25 years.
These regulations include even the size (100 ml) and shape of the bottles used — upside down tulip shaped for traditional balsamic from Reggio Emilia, and globed shaped with a rectangular bottom for Modena.
Other Producers of Traditional Balsamic
While Italy produces the most of the world's traditional balsamic, there are other companies making balsamic vinegar using traditional methods that rival the quality of the best traditional balsamic from Italy.
One in particular is worth mentioning, and that is Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monitcello, which is made in the USA in New Mexico. They make their vinegar from organic grape juice from locally grown Italian varietal balsamic grapes, and age the vinegar in Italian wooden casks. The vinegar has received high praise from Ruth Reichl, Chef Paul Bertolli, and Saveur Magazine.
How to Use Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
The rich and complex flavors that result from the multi-year aging process are truly exceptional. You only need a small amount of this dark syrupy vinegar to sprinkle on a fresh strawberry or peach, or drizzle on some Parmesan Reggiano, or vanilla ice cream.
You don't cook with traditional balsamic vinegar. Heat would destroy the subtle flavors, and waste this precious liquid. You can however, drizzle some on a plate before adding the main dish, or sprinkle some on top of a dish such as pork, chicken, or polenta.
Or you can do what I do, and that is take few drops and enjoy it straight up, allowing the flavors to coat the inside of your mouth. You will get hints of the different woods and the sweet and sour flavors of the vinegar. Taste it as you would a precious, fine wine.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI
Now we will shift gears and move on to the balsamic vinegars you would normally see in your local grocery store. As you shop for balsamic vinegar you will likely see many brands with the words "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" on the label.
Don't confuse these bottles with the traditional balsamic; it's a completely different process, and price point!
For centuries it has been a farmhouse practice to mix concentrated grape must with wine vinegar and some aged vinegar to make a vinegar for everyday cooking.
This is what "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" is, a vinegar made from a mix of grape must and wine vinegar, produced at an industrial scale, to meet global demand for balsamic vinegar.
The culture and tradition of balsamic vinegar is so important that the Italian government applied for and received a Protected Geographic Indication from the European Union. This means that if a bottle has the words Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI (or IPG) on the label, and a special seal from the EU, the vinegar must conform to a strict set of production guidelines.
Ingredients of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
To qualify for official recognition, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena can only be made with the following ingredients:
- Boiled or concentrated grape must (at least 20% by volume)
- Wine vinegar (at least 10%)
- Natural caramel (made by cooking sugar) for color (up to 2%)
- Aged balsamic vinegar (aged at least 10 years), an unspecified amount, usually negligible
The grape "must" must also come from grapes grown in the Emilio Romana Region in Italy, and the vinegar must be produced and bottled by qualified producers in the Modena region.
What's the "caramel" for? Caramel (cooked sugar) is added not as a sweetener, but to darken the vinegar to make it have a look more consistent with what we think of as balsamic vinegar. There is plenty enough sugar in the grape must. Think of the caramel in the ingredient list as a natural coloring agent.
Grape Must Is Sweet, Wine Vinegar Is Acidic
Note the minimum levels of grape must (20%) and wine vinegar (10%) in the specifications.
"Must" is basically grape juice. It's sweet in its unfermented, un-acidified state. Wine vinegar is acidic. So it's the balance of these two main ingredients — grape must and wine vinegar — that determines much of the resulting vinegar's character.
If you have a balsamic that has a greater percentage of grape must to wine vinegar, it will taste rather sweet. If the reverse is true, it will taste more acidic.
Depending on the mix of grape must and vinegar, the amount of aging, and other factors, producers can even make a product whose flavor and consistency mimic traditional balsamic.
The EU governing body that sets the standards for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena found that too many producers were misleading consumers who associated the number of years aged with quality.
So they did away with any indication of the number of years, and only allow two kinds — Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, which must be aged for a minimum of 2 months in wood barrels, and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Aged, which must be aged for a minimum of 3 years, also in wood barrels. There can be no other indication of age on the label.
How to Use Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is meant to be used as an everyday vinegar for dressing salads, for marinades, or glazes. Lighter, tart balsamics will be best for using in a vinaigrette for dressing salads. They can be sweetened and boiled down to use as a glaze. The sweeter, more syrupy vinegars are better for use in marinades, sauces, and to drizzle over dishes as a finishing sauce.
Balsamic Vinegar (No Mention of Modena on the Label)
While the tradition of making balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, all you really need to make balsamic vinegar is the juice from crushed grapes with the possible addition of wine vinegar. You can find many perfectly fine balsamic-style vinegars for every day use that aren't from Modena and aren't Italian. (Think Napa!)
In my pantry I even have a balsamic-style vinegar made entirely from apples, which has a wonderful flavor.
That said, some products that go by the name of "balsamic vinegar" may be cheap imitations that are made with just vinegar (wine, white, or cider vinegar) and added sweeteners and thickeners. Real balsamic vinegar is either made entirely with grape must (like traditional balsamic), or is a combination of grape must and wine vinegar (like Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI).
If you are considering the purchase of a balsamic-style vinegar that doesn't carry an official stamp from the EU, you need to check the ingredient list, and do your research.
How to Evaluate Balsamic Vinegar
Unless you are familiar with the specific branded product, it's difficult to tell what you are getting with balsamic vinegar. The label alone will not tell you what the vinegar is like. As with wine, you need to explore, taste, and pick which particular brands and bottles of balsamic you enjoy.
Here are a few things to look for:
- PGI seal - A PGI (or IGP) seal on the label certifies the vinegar as official Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, meaning it conforms to regulated production and marketing standards.
- Ingredients - Good quality balsamic vinegar should only have these ingredients - grape must and wine vinegar, and possibly caramel and aged vinegar.
- Which ingredient comes first? - If the first ingredient is wine vinegar, the balsamic will be on the tart side. If the first ingredient is grape must, the balsamic should be more mellow and sweet.
- Viscosity - Hold up the bottle to light, move it around, is the liquid syrupy inside? If it leaves a coating on the side of the bottle as it is swirled around, it is more thick, and likely better quality.
- Price - In general, the higher the price, the better the quality when it comes to balsamic vinegar.
What Is White Balsamic?
White Balsamic is simply balsamic vinegar that is made with grape must that has been boiled at a low enough temperature so that the sugars in the grape juice are not allowed to caramelize and turn color. This is achieved by boiling the must in a contained low pressure environment, so that the evaporation needed to concentrate the must happens at a temperature much lower than a typical boiling point temp.
Since White Balsamic doesn't have the flavor that comes with the caramelization of the grape sugars, its flavor is less complex than regular balsamic vinegar.
White balsamic is used in cooking when you don't want the vinegar to impart a dark color in the food you preparing.
What Is Balsamic Glaze?
Balsamic glaze (or balsamic syrup) is reduced balsamic vinegar, often with added sugar and thickeners such as guar gum and xantham gum. It's meant to mimic traditional balsamic vinegar, but at fraction of the cost.
You can make your own homemade balsamic glaze by adding a sweetener like sugar or honey to balsamic vinegar and simmering it until it is syrupy.
Use balsamic glaze for drizzling over foods as a finishing sauce.
How to Store Balsamic Vinegar
Does balsamic vinegar go bad? You're in luck! Unlike almost any other food item in your pantry, balsamic vinegar doesn't go bad. Like any vinegar, you should keep it in a cool, dry cupboard, away from light, and you should store it with the cap on. Stored properly, the vinegar will last for years.
This concludes our tour of balsamic. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments!
A thousand thank yous to the Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, for hosting me for a grand tour of Modena Italy to learn about how balsamic vinegar is made. Thank you's also to the gracious proprietors of Castello di Vergnano for giving us a peak into their ancient and traditional acetaia, to Ivo Piombini and the family of Ca'del Rio restaurant in Modena for showing us their family attic acetaia and giving me a bottle of their family balsamic that was started before I was born, and finally to Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California, for spending hours with me sharing his knowledge of balsamic vinegar.