Have you always found vinegar to be mouth-puckering, with a sour bite? If so, then you should try balsamic types!
High-quality products have a smooth texture, fruity aroma, and balanced sweet-tart flavor. Native Italians, who invented this condiment, have mastered the labor-intensive process. Thus, some of the best balsamic vinegar comes from Italy.
Among healthy vinegars, balsamic tops the list. Here’s how to discern tacky brands from great balsamic.
The Balsamic Difference
Vinegar results from fermenting the natural sugars in specific foods. To do this, producers inoculate a given food with a certain bacterial species.
The microbes feed on the sugar, first changing it to alcohol and then to acetic acid. Typically, this process, called “fermentation,” yields a sharp-tasting liquid with a pungent scent.
So, why does balsamic have sweet undertones?
One reason is the main ingredient, “grape must.” This term means freshly pressed grapes, including their skins, seeds, and juices.
The second factor is the processing method, like crafting fine wine. First, producers boil the grape must, followed by fermenting it. Then, they age the fermented blend inside wooden casks.
Balsamic Health Benefits
The word “balsamic” has its roots in Latin and means health-giving, curative, and restorative. In large part, the antioxidants in grapes endow balsamic with healthful qualities.
Antioxidants are unique plant compounds that mend injured cell membranes, proteins, and DNA. By this, antioxidants ward off certain medical conditions. High-quality balsamic vinegar can help to:
- support your digestion
- lower high blood pressure
- cut artery-clogging cholesterol
- balance your blood sugar
- improve your immunity
Read more about health benefits here.
The 3 Certified Grades and The Imitation
Crafting quality balsamic takes considerable skill, patience, time, specialized equipment, and money. Not all retailers strive for such excellence. Instead, some take shortcuts, rendering cheap versions of balsamic that aren’t healthy for you.
In Italy, to protect consumers, three groups of family producers govern balsamic production. Each regulating authority is called a “consortium.”
Vinegars meeting consortium approval are eligible for European Union certification.
When selecting balsamic vinegar, it helps to understand the three certified grades — Traditional, IGP, and Condimento. Then you can choose what best suits your purpose and food budget.
1. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
This is the purest balsamic you can buy. Its only ingredient is cooked grape must.
Per the consortium, Italian producers can only use certain varieties of sweet white grapes to make traditional balsamic.
Secondly, the grapes must be from vineyards in Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy. These two provinces have a reputation for outstanding grape must.
Also imperative is that producers follow established protocols for vinegar fermentation and aging. For instance, the vinegar must age at least 12 years!
Moreover, the consortium oversees balsamic marketing and labeling. A product meeting all consortium rules gains a stamp issued by the European Union (EU). Qualified sellers then display the symbol on their vinegar bottles.
The name for this seal is the “DOP Stamp.” The emblem bears the Italian words “Denominazione di Origine Protetta,” pictured here.
This designation, abbreviated “DOP,” means having a controlled origin, namely Modena and Reggio Emilia.
When you see the DOP logo on a balsamic bottle, you know that it’s first-class. Specifically, the product passed professional inspection and taste-testing. Italian DOP balsamic is also labeled “aceto balsamico tradizionale.”
Texture, Taste, and Color
The sole ingredient in traditional balsamic is grape must. For this reason, it’s glossy, thick, and velvety, with a delightful sweet-sour kick. As its syrupy liquid meets your tongue, you’ll taste notes of sherry, molasses, fig, cherry, and chocolate. You can also distinguish traditional balsamic by its deep brown-black hue.
To make this prized vinegar, producers first cook the grape must, concentrating it. Then they ferment the mash for up to three weeks. Lastly, they age the slurry in wooden casks for either 12, 18, or 25 years.
As the vinegar matures, it absorbs the scent and flavor of the wood encasing it, such as chestnut, juniper, mulberry, oak, or cherry. The longer a balsamic ages, the thicker and sweeter it becomes. Plus, it develops rich undertones.
In this brief video, a producer explains how his company makes its award-winning DOP balsamic:
Traditional balsamic has only one drawback. It’s pricey, due to all the labor required to craft it. For this reason, the food industry calls DOP vinegar “black gold.”
A 3.4-ounce bottle costs upwards of $45. Yet, if you can afford it, upon tasting this brew, you’ll find that it’s worth the expense.
2. IGP Balsamic Vinegar
What if DOP balsamic is too steep for your budget? You can still get fabulous balsamic at a lower cost. One option is buying IGP grade.
This class of vinegar undergoes surveillance, but less stringent than for DOP. The EU also grants IGP certification.
Whereas DOP means a “controlled origin,” IGP stands for a “protected origin.” The Italian term is “Indicazione Geografica Protetta.” The protected geographic area is Modena, Italy.
For a balsamic to earn IGP status, it can only be processed by Modena facilities with consortium approval. Moreover, the grape varieties must be similar to those locally grown. However, the fruit can come from anywhere in the world. Also, by law, IGP contains grape must, wine vinegar, and possibly, caramel color.
The consortium permits such leniency to meet the global demand for this luscious balsamic. Modena alone can’t supply enough grapes for this purpose!
When the consortium sanctions this type of balsamic, the EU awards the IGP stamp, as pictured below.
The official name you’ll see on labels is “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP,” abbreviated “BVM.”
Taste, Texture, and Color
Despite certification, BVM flavor varies widely among brands. This is because proprietors use different percentages of grape must and wine vinegar. Hues vary as well, based on the amount of caramel coloring added.
Generally, BVM is more tart than sweet. Within this grade, the best vinegar is naturally dense, without added thickeners. Its syrupy body reflects a predominance of grape must. Plus, it has a fruity fragrance.
When shopping for BVM, look for dark types, tending to be mildly sweet. If your budget allows, consider higher-priced IGP balsamic, most likely to have full-bodied flavor. Remember, only buy a product with the IGP stamp. Without it, bottles labeled Balsamic Vinegar of Modena can be imposters!
As legally required, IGP balsamic has at least 20 percent grape must. Proprietors add 10 to 50 percent wine vinegar, some of it aged for at least 10 years. Caramel coloring mimics the dark hue of traditional balsamic.
IGP also differs from DOP balsamic by not being fermented. Instead, the slurry undergoes cooking in pressurized vats, followed by aging for at least two months. A BVM label can display the word “aged” if the balsamic matured in wooden casks for over three years.
In this video clip, the Culinary Institute of America explains how to tell IGP balsamic from knock-offs:
BVM comes in larger quantities than traditional balsamic. For 8.5 ounces of well-aged IGP balsamic, you’ll spend at least $4.95.
3. Condimento Balsamico
Vinegars not meeting DOP or IGP standards are condimento grade. Examples are balsamics less than 12-years-old or made outside Reggio Emilia and Modena. Since condimento is less strictly monitored, its quality varies widely.
One way to identify great condimento is by the Consorzio di Balsamico Condimento seal, as pictured below.
In English, the seal means “Consortium Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.” Abbreviated CABM, the emblem certifies that the product has a sizeable quantity of grape must. Unlike DOP and IGP balsamic, the percentage isn’t specified.
CABM also signifies that the vinegar grapes were cultivated, fermented, and bottled in Modena, Italy.
Often, condimento is second-best to traditional balsamic. This occurs when producers of DOP or IGP grade use some of their premium vinegar to make condimento.
The consortium allows these sellers to display this fact on their bottles. An example is a label stating that the condimento is “made with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP.”
Top-shelf condimento lists grape must as the first ingredient. Plus, such vinegar ages for at least three years, indicated by a white seal.
Another clue to fine condimento is a label showing a family name and street address. These details suggest a small-scale operation, upholding time-honored production standards.
Texture, Taste, and Color
Condimento is slightly thinner than traditional. Still, like DOP balsamic, good condimento will coat the walls of its bottle.
Regarding flavor, since condimento doesn’t age as long, it’s less sweet than DOP grade. Instead, it will taste mildly acidic with hints of cherry. So, when traditional isn’t affordable, certified condimento is a worthy substitute.
Generally, for 3.4 ounces of certified condimento, you’ll pay upwards of $9.50.
Many American brands of balsamic don’t make the grade. Few are fermented, aged in wood, tasty, or aromatic. Some products are mostly wine vinegar with a small amount of cooked grape must. Worse yet are those without any grape must. Instead, counterfeits swap the fruit with distilled vinegar, grape juice concentrate, and caramel coloring.
Even balsamic processed in Modena can be thin and sour. Without consortium and EU involvement, proprietors can easily skimp on quality.
Again, bottle labels are your allies. On any balsamic worth buying, the first ingredient is always grape must, or in Italian, “mosto d’uva.” Respectable balsamic has none of the following additives — corn syrup, artificial flavor, sugar, emulsifiers, or thickeners, as in cornflour and guar gum. It’s also free of artificial preservatives, such as sulfites.
Poor-quality balsamic is watery, bitter, and mouth-puckering, with a lingering dryness. Fancy packaging can be misleading, such as elegant bottles, colored sealing wax, and images of royals.
Now that you’re well-versed in buying balsamic, you’ll be wary of marketing ploys.
Using Balsamic Vinegar
1. Traditional Balsamic
Add a few drops of pure balsamic to individual foods with simple flavors. Examples are aged cheeses, pears, peaches, or strawberries. Garnish dishes that need some tang, such as pasta, risotto, or eggs. Also, use it sparingly on light desserts, such as vanilla frozen yogurt.
When serving guests, the general guide is no more than one teaspoon per person.
This isn’t a vinegar to cook with, as heat destroys its fragrance and bold flavor. Nor is traditional balsamic meant for salad dressings. Mixing it with oils and other ingredients dilutes the complex notes that took years to develop.
Do you have any friends or family who value gourmet foods? If your budget allows, gift them with a bottle of traditional balsamic. Their eyes will light up when they taste it!
2. IGP Balsamic
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP is multipurpose, giving a tart edge to both raw and cooked dishes. For example, this is the perfect vinegar for salad dressings, sauces, and marinades. In particular, IGP pairs well with olive oil as a bread dip.
Do you like to bake or make jam? If so, add a splash of BVM to your dough, batter, or fruit. For recipe ideas, see this collection, including one for lentil and quinoa soup.
- If lentils are new to you, here’s a guide to lentil types and their hearty flavors.
- If you’ve never eaten quinoa, a nutty seed, see this article for how to prepare it.
Do you have kids that don’t like veggies? If so, sneak in some BVM. Or, use the vinegar to make savory dips, paired with celery and carrot sticks. Now your kids will gladly eat them!
Here’s a video demo of how to make a bright vinaigrette with BVM:
3. Condimento Balsamico
Due to the wine vinegar in condimento, it’s less delicate than traditional grade. Still, to preserve its flavor, drizzle it over fresh dishes or add it after cooking.
For instance, condimento adds zip to marinades, sauces, and chilled soups. Use it to finish grains, pasta dishes, vegetables, and leafy greens. Choice condimento also lends mild acidity to fruits, aged cheeses, and desserts.
Here’s a selection of recipes ideal for condimento, including bruschetta, pasta salad, marinara, vegetable dip, cheese skewers, avocado sandwiches, and pizza.
Where to Buy Balsamic Vinegar
You’ll find all three grades of balsamic at Italian markets, gourmet food stores, and online sellers of Italian specialty fare. Most supermarkets carry IGP balsamic, displayed in the aisle for oils and vinegar.
For reputable brands of balsamic, read this article by The Strategist.
Never drink undiluted vinegar! Its acid can erode your esophagus and teeth.
Note that balsamic vinegar can have trace amounts of lead, although not enough to harm adults. However, children must not ingest more than one tablespoon of balsamic daily. Exceeding this amount can expose them to dangerous amounts of lead.
Any woman who is breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to become pregnant must speak with their doctor before trying balsamic vinegar.
Read more about health problems here.
Choice balsamic vinegars contain cooked grape must, listing it as the first ingredient on their labels. Of all the types sold, Italian balsamic is the most regulated, being certified.
When shopping for balsamic vinegar, look for the certified stamps on bottles — either DOP, IGP, or CABM. If a given bottle is clear, swirl its liquid. A balsamic with a high percentage of grape must coat its bottle walls. Also, look for deep brown types, tending to be sweeter than light-colored ones.
Use traditional balsamic on simple foods, whose taste won’t overpower it. Examples are aged cheeses and fruits. A few drops per serving will suffice. Never cook DOP balsamic, as heat kills its divine flavor and fragrance.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP suits all types of dishes, including those cooked. If you buy condimento, use it on fresh and cooked foods, adding it just before serving.
Don’t take chances with balsamic. Only buy it certified. Upon tasting it, you’ll be a lifelong fan!
NOTE – This post is for informational purposes only. The health-related content is not intended as professional medical advice. When under the care of qualified clinicians, always follow their instructions over anything featured on this website.