Traditional aged balsamic vinegar, produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, can cost $200 per bottle, making even fine French perfume look like a bargain. You can also walk into any supermarket in America and fork over $2 or $3 for a big bottle of balsamic vinegar. What are you really buying in each case? And should you buy either product?
Thirty years ago, almost no one in America had ever heard of (never mind tasted) balsamic vinegar. It was an obscure product made in northern Italy and so highly valued that many families passed along barrels of aged vinegar as part of a wedding dowry. Fast-forward a generation, and balsamic is now the best-selling vinegar in America, accounting for 45 percent of all supermarket vinegar sales. Intoxicated by its big, sweet, caramel flavor, Americans mix it in salad dressing; drizzle it on meat, fish, and vegetables; and add it to sauces, soups, and desserts. Of course, none of this popularity would have been possible if balsamic vinegar had remained a $100-an-ounce extravagance.
A Tale of Two Vinegars
It turns out there are two kinds of balsamic vinegar, and they're made by entirely different processes. The traditional technique takes a minimum of 12 years; the modern industrial method as little as a few hours. The centuries-old traditional way begins with late-harvest grapes (usually white Trebbiano) grown in Emilia-Romagna. The sweet, raisiny juice, skin, and seeds, called grape must, is boiled in open vats until reduced to about half its original volume. This concentrated must is added to the largest of a battery of wooden barrels, which are kept in uninsulated attics in this region where the summers are hot and the winters frosty. The battery comprises barrels of different woods—including oak, cherry, juniper, and mulberry—and sizes. The barrels aren't sealed; they have cloth-covered openings on top to allow evaporation. Each year, before the vinegar maker adds the new must to the largest barrel, he transfers some of its ever-more concentrated contents to the next largest, and so on down the line, before finally removing a liter or two of the oldest vinegar from the smallest barrel. This is traditional balsamic vinegar.
What's more, all this can only happen in two provinces of Emilia-Romagna: Modena and Reggio Emilia, an area designated as a government-protected denomination of origin, or DOP. Each province has its own consortium of experts who approve the balsamic before sealing it in its official 3-ounce bottle (an inverted tulip shape for Reggio Emilia; a ball with a neck for Modena). If you want a guarantee that you're getting true balsamic vinegar, look for the word tradizionale and these distinctive bottles—and be prepared to pay dearly.
All those rules are thrown out the window when it comes to commercial balsamic vinegar. With no law defining balsamic vinegar in the United States, manufacturers supply the huge demand any way they can, coloring and sweetening wine vinegar and calling it "balsamic vinegar of Modena." It may not be the real thing, but could I find one worth using until I hit the lottery?
We began by choosing ten top-selling, nationally available supermarket balsamic vinegars. All were made in Italy, and their prices ranged from $2.39 to $14 a bottle. We tasted them plain, reduced to a glaze for roasted asparagus, and whipped into a vinaigrette. We then tasted several traditional balsamic vinegars for comparison.
Now here's the bad news: Tasted straight from the bottle, there was no contest between supermarket and traditional balsamics. Even the best of the commercial bunch-while similarly sweet, brown, and viscous—couldn't compete with the complex, rich flavor of true balsamic vinegar. With notes of honey, fig, raisin, caramel, and wood; a smooth, lingering taste; and an aroma like fine port, traditional balsamic is good enough to sip like liqueur.
But the news is not all bad. The test kitchen made vinaigrette with both a 25-year-old traditional balsamic from Reggio Emilia and the top supermarket brand from our taste tests—and frankly, in dressing, the traditional stuff did not justify its price tag. In a pan sauce, most of that fine aroma and depth of flavor was cooked away. The lesson was clear: Don't waste your money on pricey traditional balsamic vinegar if you're going to toss it on salad or cook with it. The good stuff works best uncooked, as a drizzle to finish a dish. In vinaigrette or cooked sauce, the sharpness of a supermarket balsamic adds a pleasingly bright contrast to the vinegar's natural sweetness.
The Best Supermarket Option
Among the 10 supermarket vinegars we tasted, some were quite good, others quite awful. Why? An independent lab test supplied part of the answer. Our top choice contained the most sugar; vinegars with the lowest sugar content occupied four of the bottom five spots on the list. This makes sense—the sweeter supermarket vinegars tasted more like the traditional balsamic. It turns out that our tasters also wanted their supermarket balsamic vinegar to be viscous, like traditional balsamics. Lab tests confirmed that higher viscosity tracked with higher rankings.
But sweetness and thickness alone were not enough to guarantee a spot high on our list. The second-sweetest vinegar was also the second most viscous, and it broke the pattern by appearing near the bottom. We were puzzled, until we tested pH levels. This vinegar was the least acidic one tested, and tasters thought it was excessively sweet. So a good supermarket balsamic vinegar must be sweet and thick (like the real deal), but it should also offer a little jolt of acidity.
In the end, we found one supermarket vinegar that appealed across the board, working well both plain and in the dishes we prepared. The manufacturer told us they use must that is aged in the artisanal way for 10 years, mixed with the company's own wine vinegar. It may have come across as "honey-sweet," but this vinegar offered "a nice compromise between sweet and tangy," with a "nuanced flavor" that came closest to traditional balsamic.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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