Balsamic vinegar is a concentrate of unfermented grape juices (know as grape must). The grape must is cooked down and then aged for consumption. Classic balsamic vinegar is thick in texture. In fact it's thick enough to coat a whole spoon! To top it off classic balsamic vinegar has a delicate balance of sweet and sour to take your taste buds on a journey.
Most local stores carry a selection of balsamic vinegars, some authentic and others thin, with strong bitter smell and taste. The unfortunate problem is they all seem to be the same when you look at the bottles. In order to be able to tell the real from the not so real, the European Union created different terms to identify where and how a vinegar was manufactured.
Here’s a great way to navigate through the labels: Absolutely first, and most importantly, all balsamic vinegars are separated into three categories: tradizionale (DOP), balsamic vinegar of Modena (IGP), or condimento grade. The rule of thumb is generally the more expensive the bottle, the more viscosity, complexity, and sweetness the vinegar will have.
The most costly is traditional balsamic vinegar (DOP), or aceto balsamico tradizionale. Manufactured only in Modena or Reggio Emilia, this balsamic vinegar has a pridefully protected designation of origin (DOP) from the European Union. These authentic balsamic vinegars are created from cooked grape must. Which is made by pressing Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes then put in barrels then aged to perfect. To be considered as tradizionale, balsamic vinegars have be aged for a minimum of 12 years and include no extra ingredients other than grape must.
The color of the label signifies the minimum level of aging: Red is 12 years, silver is 18 years, and gold means 25 years. Aging produces an intense sweetness with a thick, syrup like texture and a silky smooth finish. Depending on the type of barrels used in the aging processes, the vinegars will have light notes of oak, cherry, and other woods.
If you’re making a dish where balsamic is the main event -- something like a panna cotta topped with balsamic-macerated strawberries -- make sure you grab the more expensive bottle. You’ll absolutely taste the difference. The price is high (a gold label vinegar can cost a whopping $200 for only 3 ounces), so a high-end aged balsamic is best enjoyed after cooking as a garnish or in your finishing touches. Drizzle balsamic over this soup or pair it with your favorite cheeses. Avoid mixing aged balsamic vinegar in dishes with stronger flavors, like spicy food or with steak or fish -- it's very expensive and complex-tasting and you want it to have its own stage.
The most common used balsamic vinegar that can be found at your local grocery stores is balsamic vinegar of Modena (IGP), often referred to and written as aceto balsamico di Modena. Search for the letters IGP on the label, which stands for “protected geographical indication,” and means that the balsamic vinegar was produced, aged and bottled in Modena, Italy. Though it is not quite as rigorous as the criteria for tradizionalevinegars, this geographic designation provides insurance to uphold a certain, controlled standard of quality.
Produced from a combination of wine vinegar and grape must, the grapes in IGP balsamic vinegars can be harvested from anywhere in the world, but must be processed and packed in Modena to earn its label. That diversity in grapes produces a greater mix of flavor and texture in IGP vinegars. Tradizionalebalsamic vinegars will taste very close regardless of the brand, whereas the taste of IGP vinegars can actually vary. A general rule is to look at the color of the vinegar and prices -- darker vinegars will be thicker in texture and sweeter in taste, and more expensive vinegars should be more complex and nourished with a blast of flavors.