Balsamic vinegar was once scarcely available, but now, it’s available all over the world. What’s strange is how some bottles can be affordable at just three dollars, while elsewhere, an ounce can be sold for hundreds of dollars. This is because there is more than one type of balsamic vinegar.
We’ll cover all of these types in this article. Once you’ve finished reading this page, you’ll have a better understanding of the differences between each balsamic vinegar variety. You’ll also find out what Imitation Balsamic vinegar is and if it counts as balsamic vinegar.
What Is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar?
All balsamic vinegar seen today originated from traditional balsamic vinegar. This vinegar is special as it is only produced in Italy, specifically Reggio Emilia and Modena. It needs to be created with particular established methods which need to be supervised by a certification company.
Traditional balsamic vinegar starts as a grape must. These are whole, pressed grapes, including the skin, stems, seeds, and juice. The must is taken from locally grown white grapes and is then cooked over a flame. Once the solution reduces by half, it’s left alone to ferment for three weeks.
After this period, the solution is further left to age for 12 years in barrels. Also known as bacteria, the barrels are made from various types of wood, like chestnut, oak, and juniper. This makes the vinegar absorb some of the notes and flavors from each wood variety.
These barrels come in different sizes, each one getting successively smaller. The vinegar is taken from the smallest barrel and bottled, just once every year. After this, every cask is filled again with vinegar from the previous cask in the sequence. The biggest barrel is filled with the newest vinegar. The barrels are never emptied, they always contain some vinegar within.
This aging method makes the vinegar thicker and more concentrated. This is due to evaporation that happens through the sides of the cask. Vinegar in the smallest cask will be a lot thicker and treacle-like compared to the larger casks before it.
As the vinegar goes through a lot of barrels, it can be difficult to know how old the bottled vinegar is. Instead of calculating through difficult math, a tasting committee of expert judges gives the vinegar a grade instead of an age.
Traditional balsamics from Reggio Emilia are graded affinato (fine), vecchio, (old) or extra vecchio (very old). Affinato bottles will have a red cap and will roughly be 12 years old. Vecchio balsamic will have a silver cap and will be around 15-20 years old. Extra old Vecchio bottles will have a gold cap, and will roughly be 20-25 years old.
Traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena doesn’t come in Vecchio bottles, only Affinato or extra Vecchio. The difference here is that Affinato bottles will have a white cap, not a red one.
Color And Consistency
Traditional balsamic vinegar is shiny, thick, and has a deep brown hue. It is soft when tasted, reflects light well, and flows like treacle.
Bold, sweet, with many underlying flavors. Traditional balsamic vinegar will absorb the flavors of its wooden cask. You’ll notice interesting things like fig, chocolate, or cherry, along with some smoldering notes. Unlike some vinegar, traditional balsamic vinegar isn’t very acidic, but it is lightly tart.
Traditional balsamic is always labelled Aceto Balsamico Tradiizionale. They’ll also have a Denominazione di Origine Protetta (D.O.P.) stamp. This is a European Union verification that an ingredient is of quality, produced with traditional methods, and originates from a specific place. Balsamic vinegar only uses one ingredient, grape must.
It shouldn’t contain any added preservatives as they occur naturally within the vinegar.
How It’s Used
Traditional balsamic vinegar isn’t meant to be cooked with. Heating it will remove its special flavors and notes. It’s best used to enhance the taste of some foods. A few dashes go well with berries, cheese, or creamy vanilla desserts. It’s also nice to add to meats and seafood, like veal or stews. You only need around a teaspoon to enjoy its flavor.
Traditional balsamic should last a long time, but to maintain its flavors, it’s best kept in a cool, dark place. Store it away from any strong or potent foods or condiments, as it may take on some other characteristics.
What Is Condimento Balsamico?
Traditional balsamic vinegar is created under very strict regulations. Any balsamic kinds of vinegar that don’t meet these standards are still fantastic vinegar, but they can’t be designated as ‘Traditional Balsamic’. These kinds of vinegar are called Condimento Balsamico. These may have been aged for less time, weren’t made under supervision, or produced outside of Reggio Emilia or Modena.
Compared to traditional balsamic, condimento balsamic vinegar is a lot cheaper. They are still good-quality vinegar, just on a more affordable scale. Despite this, the term ‘condimento’ isn’t an entrusted certification. You may see the label on low-quality vinegar or balsamic-inspired products.
Color And Consistency
Condimento balsamic should be thick and dark in color. Better condimento will coat the inside of a glass.
They won’t be as complex as traditional balsamic, but condimentos will still have several pleasant notes. You’ll notice sweet and acidic flavors among smoky, fruity undertones.
Condimento won’t have a D.O.P stamp, but they should have an Indicazione Geografica Protetta stamp (I.G.P.). They won’t be as expensive as traditional balsamic, but should still cost around $40 for each bottle.
If you’re unsure whether a condimento balsamic is condimento or not, check the ingredients. Grape should be the only ingredient, although some may add some wine vinegar to balance the flavors. If wine vinegar is listed first, the vinegar will be sweetened with balsamic must, so it won’t be a quality condimento.
How It’s Used
You should use this just like traditional balsamic vinegar, but as it’s more affordable, you can use more of it on your food. This is a better vinegar to use as a salad dressing.
Like traditional balsamic vinegar, condimentos have an incredibly long lifespan. They should still be kept in a cool dark place and away from any potent ingredients.
What Is Balsamic Vinegar Of Modena IGP?
When balsamic vinegar first made its way to the US, it became so popular that the demand outgrew the supply. This led to balsamic-inspired vinegar being made, so the D.O.P certification was necessary to distinguish between traditional balsamic and other derivatives.
The European Union created the I.G.P. designation in 2009. This distinguishes quality mass-market balsamic from cheaper ones. This label promises that the vinegar is made from grapes found in Modena. The grapes can be sourced from anywhere, but they do need to be processed in Modena.
The vinegar is aged for two months, but it isn’t fermented. It can contain as much as 50% wine vinegar to balance its acidity. Thickening ingredients and colorants may also be added to make it resemble traditional balsamic. Depending on the number of extra ingredients added, some Modena I.G.P. balsamic can cost as little as $5 or as much as $50.
Color And Consistency
As the I.G.P. label permits additives, some balsamic may be thicker and darker than others.
I.G.P. balsamic is greater in acidity, so it tastes more like classic vinegar with a light sweetness. Darker vinegar should be sweeter, while bottles that cost more will have more flavors and notes.
I.G.P. balsamic vinegar bottles should have the I.G.P. label and stamp. If the vinegar has aged for over three years, the term ‘aged’ is allowed to appear on the label. Other than this, there shouldn’t be much else on the bottle.
How It’s Used
As this balsamic vinegar is more affordable, you can use it liberally as a salad dressing. You can also cook with it freely and create marinades and vinaigrettes. Darker balsamic will be sweeter and pleasant with desserts and fruits. Lighter ones are sourer, which go well in stews and dips.
Modena I.G.P. balsamic lasts for a long time, but should still be stored away from sunlight and potent ingredients.
Imitation Balsamic Vinegar
Some vinegar brands use the term ‘balsamic’ but are just vinegar with lots of additives. Instead of grape must, these may be created with wine, cider, or white vinegar. These are made to resemble balsamic vinegar at a much lower price. These kinds of vinegar may state that they’re produced in Italy, but this won’t be true unless they have an I.G.P. label.
You may find balsamic-style vinegar from other countries, like Spain, France, or Canada. These may be good-quality vinegar, so check the ingredients to find out. If cooked must is the only ingredient, it’s a decent imitation balsamic. If it uses cooked must and vinegar, it’s more like an I.G.P.
These imitation balsamic will never taste the same as traditional balsamic vinegar, but they may still be nice in dressings, marinades, and dips.
There you have it! These are all the things you need to know about balsamic vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar undergoes a rigorous process and needs to be certified before it can be sold.
Condimento is a label given to balsamic that cannot be certified as ‘traditional’. I.G.P balsamic is the most affordable, but will still be a quality product. Watch out for imitation balsamic vinegar, as these may contain several additives to resemble actual balsamic.
If you can get your hands on traditional balsamic vinegar, don’t waste it on your salad! Add a few drops to enhance your foods, like fruit, cheese, and desserts. I.G.P. balsamic is better for using as a dressing, creating marinades, or making dips.
And remember, no matter what balsamic vinegar you own, keep it away from heat and sunlight! Balsamic vinegar may last forever, but it is best kept in cold, dark places.