The True Story of Balsamic Vinegar (and How to Buy the Best!)

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale

I sometimes get confused by the incredible array of products that are on the shelves under the “Balsamic Vinegar” label. True balsamic vinegar, always labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is a truly exceptional product that has been produced since 1000 AD and it was originally used as a tonic, as balsamico in Italian comes from the root of balsamo, balm, which is defined as a healing ointment, or a soothing restorative agent (Merriam-Webster).

Barrels in an Acetaia

Balsamic vinegar is not made from wine, like regular vinegar, but rather from must of Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes, typical products of Emilia Romagna and high in sugar content. The grapes are slowly cooked to create a concentrate, which is then off to age for a minimum of 12 years in a family of wooden barrels placed in an acetaia (literally, the place where vinegar is made), a under-roof location where the barrels are preserved without sealing. The barrels vary in size and are made from different woods, from the largest to the smallest usually oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, ash and juniper. The newly reduced must is placed in the largest barrel, and as the evaporation process each year reduces the content in the barrels, each is topped off with content from the next largest one. It is a long and laborious process that yields a syrupy end product, whose taste is a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. Only the balsamic that has gone through his process can be called tradizionale- you won’t find a lot of products with this label!

Balsamic Vinegar Tasting Tools at Acetaia Malpighi in Modena

Nowadays, we find balsamic vinegar all over the place: a product this labor intensive cannot yield as much to fill the shelves of grocery stores all over the world! Industrial production of balsamic vinegar bears no resemblance to the original product, and often the cheaper versions of balsamic are nothing more than white vinegar with caramel syrup added.

To pick the best product off the shelves, look closely at the ingredient list. The first ingredient (the one making the most of the product by percentage) should be the must of grapes, and not vinegar. Caramel should not be listed as an ingredient, and nor should be added flavorings either natural or artificial. Also, look for a bottle that says that it has been aged in wooden barrels, as sometimes “aged in wood”simply means that wooden chips were added as the vinegar ages. The price tag will be revealing: aceto balsamico tradizionale is sold for many hundred dollars per liter. Some of the traditional producers will put on the market a diluted version of balsamic for a much more reasonable price tag that will not carry the word tradizionale on the label.

The best use of balsamic vinegar is with salty and fatty things: some meat dishes are fabolous with aceto balsamico, but one of the best pairing for it is Parmigiano Reggiano- as well as other aged cheeses. Just a drop or two will enhance both flavors, and served together as an appetizer will make you memorable to your guests! I like my baslamic vinegar drizzled over strawberries or ice cream- and quite surprisingly a spoon of balsamic vinegar is an excellent digestive!

Aceto Balsamico, Costco

I keep three types of Balsamico at home: a cheap bottle for everyday use, more acidic and perfect to drizzle over salad- which I buy at Costco; a pricier version, more dense and a tad sweeter which I use to make filetto all’aceto blsamico, balsamic vinegar filet, that I find at Cosentino’s; and a bottle of Tradizionale which I save for Parmesan cheese, strawberries, and ice cream, a real treat to take out for important dinners and Christmas- I got it for our wedding, but you can find it at the Pasta Shop, Draegers and A.G. Ferrari.

Gelato with Balsamic Vinegar

10 Responses to “The True Story of Balsamic Vinegar (and How to Buy the Best!)”

  1. [...] over carpaccio, in savory cakes and gnocchi and pasta fillings, and alone (maybe with a drop of balsamic vinegar) as a snack. It is the one ingredient I can’t stand to be missing when I cook- and finding it [...]

  2. [...] provolone, asiago, fontina, pecorino, caciotta, flakes of Parmigiano Reggiano sprinkled with aged balsamic vinegar, grilled zucchini and eggplants and porcini mushrooms, and a selection of spreads including orange [...]

  3. very good post, interested to hear your take on premium first press italian olive oils ( i have two personal favorites, curious to know yours)

  4. In Italy, like most Italians, we would get good olive oil straight from the producer- you head to the countryside with a large can and buy the olive oil straight from the mill! That’s how my cousin still makes it, and it is fabulous!! I have always found hard, finding oils of similar quality- I don’t know whether it’s the myth of the olive oil from the producer or the quality is really fantastic. I am often disappointed by the ones I buy.
    A couple of HUGE exceptions- I LOVE Coppini olive oil- I got to know it at a fancy food show, and fell head over heels for it! Their website here: I also like Laudemio, “The Prince”, although I am often convinced it’s way overpriced…
    I’m curious to hear which ones are your favorites!!

  5. [...] you can find it at Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and pretty much every store right now! However, traditional balsamic vinegar is a harder find. We’re talking about the original product, created over the span of decades [...]

  6. Thanks for the tips!

  7. [...] coming from outside the origin area should not carry the same name. Examples of DOP products are Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (area around Modena), Parmigiano Reggiano (around Parma), Castelmagno cheese (around Cuneo, in [...]

  8. [...] Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale- the usual locked case is on display at Bristol Farms. Not a huge selection, but some interesting bottles! [...]

  9. Thanks for this interesting article.

  10. Please keep writing more

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