What Is Balsamic Vinegar? Purchasing, Cooking, and Recipes

Over the past decade or so, balsamic vinegar has exploded on the culinary scene, becoming the darling of master chefs and a ubiquitous item in gourmet food stores, supermarkets, fancy restaurants, pizza joints, and sometimes even fast-food chains.

But what is it? What distinguishes balsamic vinegar from other wine vinegars? Really, what distinguishes one kind of balsamic vinegar from another? And what role does balsamic vinegar play our cherished activities of eating and cooking? There is far more to balsamic than you might think.

What Is Balsamic Vinegar?

Balsamic vinegar has been created in and around its own birthplace, the city of Modena, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, for nearly a thousand years.

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, balsam refers to"an aromatic and usually fatty and resinous substance" from plants that can be utilized to make a balm, and the first written reference of this term to vinegar appeared in 1747 in a register in the winery of the Duke of Este in Modena.

This is a wine-producing area, specializing in trebbiano (white) and lambrusco (red) grape varieties, and it was the tradition to put aside some of the must--the unfermented juice of grapes--to make a very special vinegar. The way it was made centuries ago is still pretty much the way traditional balsamic vinegar is made today.

The juice is slowly cooked down to the consistency of a syrup, concentrating its flavors and aromas, and darkening its own color. It is then cooled and transferred to wooden barrels, where the cooked should undergoes a slow fermentation, creating alcohol that, in turn, is attacked by acetic bacteria, turning the wine into vinegar. This is followed with a really lengthy aging procedure of 12 years or more.

During this time period, as the liquid from the barrel evaporates, the contents are transferred to smaller and smaller barrels of different types of wood, such as chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper. After that, the vinegar may be aged for an additional period of time before bottling. Needless to say, all these processes have a significant impact on the final product.

However, maybe not all balsamic vinegars are made in the traditional manner.

Traditional Balsamic vs. Red Wine Vinegar

It is rather easy to determine the basic differences between balsamic and wine vinegar: Balsamic is darker, sweeter, and thicker than red wine vinegar.

What gets a little tricky is distinguishing one kind of balsamic from another. While there are many different types of balsamic vinegars, they basically boil down (pardon the pun) into three varieties, which form a sort of quality pyramid.

The Spruce / Adrian MangelVarieties

At the bottom of the pyramid is the commercial version, labeled simply balsamic vinegar" or even"aceto balsamico." This a mass-market product based on wine vinegar with coloring, thickening agents, and flavoring added to it to simulate the flavor and consistency of a traditional balsamic vinegar.

This is the least costly of the balsamic vinegars (though usually a little more costly than many red wine vinegars) and the very familiar one to people outside of Italy. In fact, it does not also have to be made in Italy.

The next level up is Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP (protected geographical indication). These vinegars have to be made in the area of Modena and consist of a minimum of 10 percent concentrated grape juice, minimum 10 percent wine vinegar, and two percent caramel. An unspecified amount of older (10 years or more) vinegar may be added, and the must may come from seven approved grape varieties.

At the peak of the pyramid is the original balsamic vinegar known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or even Reggio Emilia), made with the long and complicated traditional way. This item carries a DOP (protected appellation of origin) qualification, meaning that it must follow strict regulations and adhere to the established traditional procedure.

This vinegar is made from just two local grape varieties--lambrusco and trebbiano--and has to age for a minimum of 12 years; if it says stravecchio (extra old) on the label, it has aged for 25 years or more. Some even age for 50 years or longer. These vinegars represent the pinnacle of the category.

Balsamic Vinegar Uses

Originally, a spoonful of balsamic vinegar was taken as a tonic and an elixir, and tiny bottles of long-aged aceto balsamico were bestowed upon important people as a special mark of favor. Today, many people use it for every thing as their go-to vinegar of choice. If it comes to balsamic vinegar, how you use it depends largely on which type you have.

How to Cook With Balsamic Vinegar

Basic balsamic vinegar is the one to use for dressing a salad, for a syrupy reduction to drizzle over food, or as a marinade. Besides undergoing a culinary process that changes the nature of the vinegar, these uses also require a considerable amount of it.

Start looking for a great Aceto Balsamico di Modena when you want both to showcase the vinegar and accentuate the food. This is similar to the way you might utilize a good extra-virgin olive oil: Drizzle it over something at the table, or add a splash to a sauce or cooking juices just before serving.

Use a traditional balsamic vinegar much as you would a fine winecarefully and with respect for its own integrity. After allyou want to taste and appreciate its unique flavor and sophistication. Drizzle it on aged cheeses or abundant gamy foods like roast squab or liver pâté, or function a thimbleful with dessert or after dinner as a digestivo.

What Does It Taste Like?

Balsamic vinegar is typified with its soft, rich palate feel and a notable sweetness balanced by acidity. A traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena or Reggio Emilia adds the unique character of specific local grape varieties and the multilayered complexity that comes from a time-honored production procedure and lengthy aging.

Balsamic Vinegar Substitute

If using it for a salad or marinade, substitute a fantastic red wine vinegar. If you want a sign of the umami balsamic vinegars typically have, add a bit of soy sauce. And if you are searching for that grapey intensity, then add a little grape juice concentrate. You can also search for other Italian condiments made from concentrated grape must such as mosto cotto or even saba.

Balsamic Vinegar Recipes

Besides functioning as a basic condiment, balsamic is a terrific and versatile ingredient in many kinds of dishes.

  • Fig Jam With Wine and Balsamic Vinegar
  • Steak and Mitsuba Herb Chirashi Sushi With Balsamic Soy Sauce
  • Seared Scallops and Shrimp With Balsamic Strawberries

Where to Purchase Balsamic Vinegar

Basic balsamic vinegar can be found in most supermarkets and supermarkets in the aisle with vinegars and oils. Gourmet food shops frequently stock balsamic vinegars from Modena, but if you are looking for traditional balsamic vinegar, go to Italian specialty stores, luxury food purveyors, or reputable online sites specializing in oils and vinegars or high-end Italian goods.


Store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dark place away from heat, such as in the cupboard. It doesn't have to be refrigerated. It won't oxidize once opened and will remain indefinitely. Don't worry if you find some sediment at the bottom of the bottle. It is a natural byproduct of the aging process and is not harmful.

Nutrition and Benefits

A 100-gram dose of balsamic vinegar provides about 88 calories and 17 grams of carbohydrates (6% of recommended daily intake), along with mineral nutrients such as manganese (6 percent ), iron (4 percent ), magnesium (3 percent ), and calcium (1.5%). Polyphenols, an antioxidant present in balsamic, are thought to help lower heart disease and