Balsamic vinegar is unlike other vinegar, its dark syrupy consistency with a rich complexity is the perfect balance of sweet and tart. A good balsamic vinegar can lift salads, cheese, desserts and meat.
There are many varieties of this type of vinegar, costing from a few pounds to a few thousand pounds a bottle. But with such a wide selection, it can be a bit tricky working out which balsamic vinegar is the best. In this guide, we’ll be looking at various types of balsamic vinegar, how to spot a quality bottle, and how to successfully pair them up with foods.
What is the difference between balsamic vinegar and regular vinegar?
While apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar, rice vinegar and sherry vinegar all give a great taste and have many uses, balsamic vinegar is in a league of its own. None other attracts more enthusiasm, more acclaim and has more history than balsamic vinegar.
Balsamic vinegar is part of Italian folklore and has been made in the north of Italy for over a thousand years. Its popularity grew in the Middle Ages and was so-called because it was regarded as a ‘balsam’ – a cure-all for everything from labour pains to disinfecting wounds.
None other attracts more enthusiasm, more acclaim and has more history than balsamic vinegar.
It has inspired poetry, family feuds and was even given as coronation presents to kings across Europe. The various families that make balsamic vinegar keep their methods a closely guarded secret, and each type of vinegar will have its own unique flavour. If you’re wondering which one to go for, here’s your guide to picking the best balsamic vinegar.
How can you tell a good balsamic vinegar?
The ageing, quality of grapes and the production process make choosing a good balsamic similar to picking a good wine. If you want to buy good balsamic vinegar, you need to look out for a number of indicators of quality. Traditional balsamic vinegar can be expensive – but within this price, you’re paying for time, tradition, craft and history.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
One of the first rules of thumb when choosing a good bottle of balsamic vinegar is to check ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’ is printed on the label. True balsamic vinegar will either be branded with ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena’ or ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia’, from the two areas where the vinegar is made. This indicates that the contents have been produced using traditional methods.
Italian law dictates that in order to be sold as Balsamico Tradizionale, it must be fermented for at least 12 years. And experts generally agree that the older the vintage, the better the flavour.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is normally made solely with Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes which are grown in the Emilia-Romagna and Modena regions of Italy and have a naturally high sugar content. This area of the country experiences very hot summers and very cold winters which help provide the flavours that create the vinegar’s unique taste.
The PDO (or DOP in English) designation of “Affinato” vinegar shows that it is made according to the strictest traditional Modenese method of balsamic vinegar making. Unlike balsamics with IGP status, no wine vinegar is added while the vinegar matures – it is made purely from aged grape must.
When choosing a good bottle of balsamic vinegar check if ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’ is printed on the label
One of our favourites is Defrutum Balsamic Vinegar DOP “Extravecchio" – a 25 year old balsamic tradizionale, which has been dubbed the “Rolls-Royce of vinegar”, and has such an extraordinary flavour that it’s often enjoyed as a small digestif.
If you're looking for tradition and a sustainable approach to production, the Giusti family has been producing Italy’s oldest balsamic vinegar since 1605, following a family recipe that’s remained the same since the start. The result is some of the best-loved balsamics, not only in Italy, but across the world.
What is the process of making balsamic vinegar?
The production of balsamic vinegar involves the grapes, seeds, skin and stems being boiled down to around a third of their original volume. This creates a product called ‘must’, and is transferred to wooden barrels to age. The vinegar will reduce in volume by 10% each year through evaporation and will be stored in smaller and smaller barrels. The more aged, the more concentrated the flavour becomes. Older vinegar tend to increase in price, but with this comes greater depths and complexity on the palate.
Bottle shape and seal
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is sold in bulbous-shaped bottles designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Italian car designer. Those from Reggio Emilia will have an inverted tulip shape. You’ll also notice that the consortium seal is on the cap as well as the label.
What are the ingredients in balsamic vinegar?
Good quality balsamic vinegar will have its ingredients listed as “Grape must, tradizionale’. This means that it has been aged for at least 12 years, and the vinegar will thick and sweet. Cheaper vinegar will be combined with a wine vinegar, caramel, flavourings and other ingredients. These are fine for vinaigrettes or glazing but will lack the depth and complexity of a Balsamico Tradizionale.
Older vinegar tend to increase in price, but with this comes greater depths and complexity on the palate.
DOP and IGP
Two labels to be mindful of when picking your balsamic vinegar are DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta).
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, is one such product that carries a DOP seal. This ensures not only that the vinegar is made in the region but also that the manufacturers follow specific techniques to create the end product. Every part of the process must be carried out within the region of Modena and is subject to rigorous testing from inspectors.
IGP is less strict, but will mean that the vinegar has protected geographical information, and the production or processing takes place in the region of Modena. In order to keep up with the demand in balsamic, derivative methods were set up, and included using grapes from outside the Modena region. IGP vinegars can also contain additional ingredients like wine vinegar, thickeners and caramel to make up for the absence of ageing.
While a DOP stamp denotes the top rank of balsamics, there is still plenty of good vinegar that carry the IGP seal or no seal at all…
Cheaper Types of Balsamic Vinegar
While we love high-quality balsamic vinegar, and regard it as a culinary essential ingredient, its cost means that it is normally used sparingly.
Italians will bring out a bottle of Tradizionale on special occasions, just like a bottle of Champagne. There are cheaper versions of balsamic vinegar, which are perfect for more everyday occasions when you just want the flavour of balsamic to highlight a dish.
This bottle of 4 year aged balsamic from Defrutum contains the grape must and wine vinegar and is a brilliant example of a great quality balsamic which is affordably priced and perfect for regular use.
Can I use balsamic vinegar to replace apple cider vinegar?
It really depends what you're using it in!
If you want to dress a salad, then balsamic vinegar is a fantastic alternative to apple cider vinegar. It brings extra dimensions of both sweetness and flavour.
Apple cider vinegar is widely used for its health benefits: helping to regulate polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) as well as regulate blood sugar, and hence diabetes. Yet, these medical studies refer to the benefits acetic acid in the vinegar, rather than specifically the apple cider. If you're keen to enjoy the health benefits of acetic acid, then rest assured that balsamic vinegar - along with all other vinegars - contain acetic acid.
Other people use apple cider vinegar to kickstart home vinegar making, as it sometimes is sold with 'the mother' - a live gelatinous disc of cellulose and bacteria which forms during vinegar making, and helps start the new vinegar-making process. Most balsamic vinegar is filtered and so doesn't contain the mother - therefore you should stick to live apple cider vinegar with mother for your home vinegar making. Plus it's probably cheaper too!
What is the best balsamic vinegar for salads?
There are two ways to dress salads with balsamic vinegar. Either you can go Italian-style and place separate bottles of balsamic vinegar and olive oil on the table for everyone to dress their own leaves with a little dash of each. Or you can pre-mix an oil and vinegar dressing in the kitchen, perhaps even adding a little mustard, seasonings and herbs.
For serving at the table, it's good to use a balsamic with a little body and perhaps lighter acidity, for example an 8 year old IGP Balsamic vinegar, or even – if you're feeling luxurious – this 16 year old IGP balsamic vinegar. Stick to the eight year old if you are keen to retain a good amount of acidity.
Balsamic Vinegar Uses
Its versatility in the kitchen is one of the reasons balsamic vinegar is so popular. Be bold and try it in the following:
Meats Add to a beef broth or used as a glaze on pork, lamb and beef. A balsamic vinegar marinade is a great way to tenderise meat too.
Fish Glaze and bake fish fillets with balsamic vinegar and eat with fresh greens.
Fruit A little Pomegranate Flavoured White Balsamic Condiment poured onto a fruit salad, brings the flavours alive. Goes particularly well with strawberries and stone fruits, especially cherries.
Desserts Italians often upgrade a simple pannacotta with a good balsamico tradizionale on special occasions. It’s well worth a try with a good quality vinegar. These Balsamic Pearls are also great with ice cream.
After a stage as a chef at a London Michelin-starred restaurant Nicola became obsessed with seeking the best flavours from around the world. She started Sous Chef in 2012, and is always sharing her knowledge of ingredients and writing recipes to showcase those products. Learning from the products, Sous Chef's suppliers and her travels, Nicola has written the majority of the recipes on the Sous Chef website, all of which are big on flavour.