Can you remember a time before balsamic vinaigrette? Or something coated with a balsamic glaze? Although Italians have been using balsamic vinegar for centuries, American cooks have been enjoying it for only a few decades. And thank goodness it has become a part of our cuisine—balsamic vinegar's complex flavor adds depth and richness to a dish. When selecting a balsamic vinegar, you will have three grades to choose from—traditional, condiment, and commercial grade.
Depending on how you plan on using the balsamic vinegar and how much you'd like to spend will determine which type you buy. The price will generally dictate the quality, so remember, you get what you pay for. Some cheaper brands use sulfites added as a preservative, so if you are allergic, be extra careful to read the label.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from only grape must (whole pressed grapes) and is produced in the traditional method. It is made in Reggio Emilia and Modena, Italy, under strict watch and regulations, where it is cooked to reduce by half, then left to ferment for three weeks, and then stored to mature and thicken for either five years or at least 12 years depending on which type of barrel is used.
The syrup-like consistency is very dark in color and is smooth on the tongue. Fruit flavors (fig, cherry, prune), as well as chocolate and molasses, are present, and traditional balsamic vinegar is much more mellow and less acidic than commercial versions. Heating the vinegar will actually ruin its flavor, and mixing in a salad dressing is a waste of traditional balsamic's quality. Instead, use it as a finishing drizzle over berries and cheese, and even desserts like ice cream.
If you want the real thing, be sure the bottle is labeled aceto balsamico tradizionale and features a D.O.P. ("Denominazione di Origine Protetta") stamp, which means that the ingredients' quality, origin, and production have been guaranteed by the European Union. A bottle of aceto balsamico tradizionale can cost anywhere from $40 to $80, but you may also find some at a whopping $200.
Condiment (Condimento) Balsamic
Whereas traditional balsamic can only be that which is produced under the D.O.P. guidelines, condiment balsamic is made under less restrictive standards. It is mainly known to be a quality balsamic that when made didn't follow all of the specific rules of aceto balsamico tradizionale—it was produced outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia, wasn't aged as long or wasn't produced under correct supervision. However, since it isn't regulated, lesser balsamic can be labeled as "condiment" as well. So it is important to carefully read the bottle before purchasing.
You can look for two distinctions on the label: an I.G.P. stamp (indicazione geografica protetta) or the seal of the Consorzio di Balsamico Condimento, a group that monitors condimento quality. Checking out the ingredient list is also a way to assess the grade—grape must be the first ingredient (and if it's the only ingredient that's a great sign); wine vinegar is ok, but it shouldn't be the first on the list.
A good condiment balsamic should be thick and rich and have a nice mix of sweetness, acidity, and earthy fruit flavors. It will also be relatively expensive, around $40 a bottle. Use it in the same way you would the traditional balsamic—although since it's less money you can be a bit more liberal and use in a salad dressing.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena I.G.P.
This is the type of balsamic found in the greatest quantity on your grocery store shelf. To meet the high demand for balsamic vinegar in the United States, producers had to come up with an easier and quicker method of production. Therefore, there is no fermenting stage during production—only a cooking and short aging process. Thus, it has to contain wine vinegar to balance the acidity. Keep in mind, however, that there is no restriction on the amount so some varieties can contain up to 50 percent wine vinegar. They can also include color additives and thickening agents. In addition to reading the ingredient list, you want to look for I.G.P. on the label—this guarantees that the product is made from grape varietals found in Modena.
Because this type of vinegar can be made in so many different ways, the look and taste can range quite a bit. It can be thick (but that could be from added thickener) and dark, or thinner and lighter in color. This variety is much more acidic than traditional and condiment balsamic. You will find bottles starting at $5, perfect for cooking and mixing into salad dressings.
Storing Balsamic Vinegar
The good thing about any of these varieties of balsamic vinegar is that they can be stored indefinitely. There is no concern once you open the bottle since oxygen does not cause deterioration or change the product in any way. Store the balsamic vinegar in a cool, dark place away from heat. You may notice a sediment in the bottle—this is a natural by-product of the process and is not harmful.