Despite what many of the labels on the bottles say, there are really only two kinds of balsamic vinegar: the highly prized, DOP-regulated, aceto balsamico tradizionale (or traditional balsamic vinegar)—and everything else.
Much like the olive oil market, the world of balsamic vinegar has been so messed up and confused that what most of us consider to be balsamic vinegar really has nothing to do with the genuine article.
Aceto balsamico tradizionale is the pinnacle of all vinegars: produced by hand in small quantities using methods that are hundreds of years old, it has the consistency of maple syrup, and costs anywhere from $150 to $400 for a 3.4 ounce bottle.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any good (even excellent) non-DOP balsamic vinegars out there. It just means you have to do a lot of label reading to make sure you’re getting a good thing. DOP stands for Denominazione de Origine Protetta, meaning food products whose origins are identifiable in the taste, texture or “perfume” of the product and produced in a specific region with all the ingredients coming from that region. This is all carefully overseen by the Italian government and it is a big deal when it comes to quality.
In order to bear the name aceto balsamico tradizionale, every aspect of its creation, from grape to bottle, is carefully regulated by DOP standards. The vinegar undergoes a lengthy transformation that takes a minimum of 12 years. To keep competition fair, each producer is allotted a specific number of bottles he can sell, which is indicated by a numbered tag on the bottle’s neck. Bottles from Modena are usually bulb-shaped, while bottles from Reggio nell’Emilia are bell-shaped. A red cap means the vinegar is at least 12 years old, while a vinegar that is 25 years of age or more has a gold cap.
Back in the 1980’s, when the balsamic vinegar craze hit the United States, many chefs looking for exotic ingredients in their dishes, started using balsamic vinegar. It became an overnight sensation, and the demand was too great for these small handmade batch producers to handle. And so the market for inexpensive balsamic vinegars was born: vinegars that bear little resemblance to the real thing, using ingredients like cider or red wine vinegar, sugar and artificial coloring.
So can you buy a good vinegar if you don’t have wads of money to spend?
Well, the next step down from the good stuff is called aceto balsamico condimento—what we see in the stores as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (although some are produced outside of Modena) and they average in price from $20 to $60 a bottle. They’re kept in less expensive wood barrels, and are aged less than 12 years.
And then there’s everything else.
Some simple tips on what to look for on the ingredients label: Since the really good stuff is very expensive and should never be cooked or reduced, look for high quality non-DOP balsamic vinegars. Look for those from Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia with Consorzio di Balsamico Condimento on the label to guarantee the age. Even if this stuff is too expensive for you, at the very least, make sure that “grape must” is the first ingredient on the label and that its acidity is not above 7 percent.
I recently found a bottle of balsamic vinegar under the brand name Rozzano. A 34 oz bottle goes for about 9 bucks. Is it the good stuff? Not really. But does it work in a salad dressing or a marinade? Absolutely. The only ingredient listed is balsamic vinegar of Modena, and its acidity is 6%.
Here’s a really simple recipe you can make with this inexpensive vinegar…
PORT WINE/BALSAMIC VINEGAR STEAK SAUCE
½ cup port wine
½ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup red grapes, sliced lengthwise (optional)
Place ingredients in a small sauce pan and reduce by half. Use this sauce on steaks, burgers, etc.