Supermarket Balsamic Vinegar
In recent years, Italy has created a new set of guidelines for mass-produced balsamic vinegar. We wanted to know if these new laws guarantee a better-quality product.
How We Tested
The first thing to understand when you set out to buy balsamic vinegar at the grocery store is that it has little to do with the traditionally made, name-protected Italian artisanal product called aceto balsamico tradizionale. It’s not even made for the same purpose. The traditional stuff is a small-batch, long-aged product that bears a Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) seal indicating use of locally grown ingredients and adherence to strict guidelines. Costing as much as $250 for a tiny 3.4-ounce bottle, it’s meant to be drizzled sparingly over steak or strawberries—or even sipped. Masking its flavors in vinaigrette or burning them off in a cooked application would be a tragic mistake.
That’s where the supermarket stuff comes in. This inexpensive mass-produced product is designed for salad dressing or to make a sweet-tart reduction to drizzle over vegetables or grilled meats. While its flavor isn’t anywhere near as complex as traditional balsamic, it can still have a pleasing fruity bite, which makes it a staple in most American kitchens.
Since we last tasted supermarket balsamic vinegar in 2007, a new certification process for this product has been put in place. Vinegars that are produced in either Reggio Emilia or Modena (the only two provinces where traditional balsamic can be made) and follow certain other guidelines can call themselves “balsamic vinegar of Modena” and bear an Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or IGP, seal on their labels. Curious if this certification process would raise the standards and give us a better supermarket option at the same affordable price, we rounded up nine widely available balsamic vinegars of Modena with an IGP seal (including our former winner), all sold for no more than $15 a bottle, and conducted a series of blind taste tests. We sampled them plain, whisked into vinaigrette, and reduced to make a quick glaze that we served over asparagus.
Straight from the bottles, the vinegars ranged from nearly as thick as traditional balsamic to as watery and thin as distilled white vinegar. The plain tasting revealed a similarly wide array of flavors. The best versions tasted of caramelized sugar or roasted fruit and had a smooth, pleasant tang; others had a fake, candy-like sweetness or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, tasted harshly acidic. We were puzzled. How could all these products qualify under the exact same standards?
We did a little investigating and discovered that the guidelines governing the use of the seal are pretty loose. IGP laws do outline a list of approved ingredients—namely, that the vinegar begin with the must (the skin, seeds, and juice) from select native Italian grape varietals. But they require that only 20 percent of the finished product consist of grape must (compared with the 100 percent required for traditional balsamic). So what makes up the remaining 80 percent? Regular wine vinegar made anywhere. Second, although some aging is mandatory, 60 days are all that’s required—a far cry from traditional vinegar’s 12-year minimum. And finally, while production must take place within Reggio Emilia or Modena and certain varieties of grapes are required, the grapes can be grown anywhere in the world.
But here’s the kicker: Unlike batches of traditional balsamic vinegar, which are subjected to a final taste test so rigorous that roughly 20 percent of submissions fail it, nearly every vat of vinegar that follows the loose IGP rules for production becomes certified, explaining the wide range we’d observed in our tastings.
Ferreting Out a Winner
We now knew why vinegars bearing the IGP seal could taste so different. And yet we couldn’t find a trend in our plain tasting results that connected our preferences to any particular manufacturing methods. Some products use more of the native grape must than others and/or cook the must in open vats as do traditional balsamic makers (cooking in vats allows for caramelization and, thus, more complex flavor development than what is produced by mechanical processing)—but neither of these variables was necessarily linked to the vinegars we preferred. Seven of the nine manufacturers confirmed that they age their balsamics for the minimum time. Of the two remaining, one cited the vague range of “60 days to two years,” and the other, our former winner, qualified as what is known as invecchiato, meaning that it is aged for more than three years. Our front-runner ages for the minimum time.
But we still had the reduction and vinaigrette tastings to go, and interestingly, after these two tastings the playing field leveled off just a bit. Six of the products we tried were perfectly acceptable once incorporated into a vinaigrette or reduced and drizzled over asparagus. The additional ingredients in the dressing softened any sharp acidity, while reducing these vinegars added body to thinner products but didn’t adversely affect the thickest. Our objections to the other three vinegars in the lineup only mellowed enough to recommend them with reservations. Though they’d do in a pinch, they retained the artificial sweetness or harshness tasters had objected to in the plain tasting.
While each of our top six balanced fruity sweetness with bright acidity, one came out on top. Our winner has a “lush,” “syrupy” texture in vinaigrette and an “almost drinkable” flavor with notes of apple, molasses, and dried fruit. Best of all, at only $3.49 for an 8.5-ounce bottle ($0.41 per fluid ounce), it’s affordable enough to use every day.
The In-Between Balsamic
Inexpensive supermarket balsamic is best for everyday use, while costly traditional vinegar should be reserved for drizzling on berries, steaks, or a good cheese. But there’s another category of balsamic vinegar, sold in specialty shops and some supermarkets, that falls between the two. Many of these vinegars hold themselves to a higher standard, including adding less wine vinegar and aging longer. We bought three bottles of these midrange balsamics (La Vecchia Dispensa Organic Condiment, San Giacomo Essenza Riserve Balsamic, and Oliviers & Co. Velluto Balsamic Condiment), priced between $4 and $10 per ounce, recommended by a local gourmet shop. We tried them plain, drizzled on berries, and in vinaigrette.
Straight out of the bottle we noticed that they had a syrupy consistency closer to that of traditional vinegar, and when we drizzled them over berries, tasters actually deemed their consistency, honeyed sweetness, and fruity complexity a surprisingly close approximation of 25-year-aged tradizionale, though the nuances of each vinegar varied a bit. But also like a traditional balsamic, these midrange vinegars were ill-suited to vinaigrette—the dressings made with them were all sticky and gloppy, more like a tart caramel sauce than a salad dressing. This is because like the traditional balsamics, these vinegars have more of what are known as polymeric pigments, which form gel-like droplets with oil, than supermarket vinegars. Our recommendation? For use as an everyday ingredient in dressings and cooking, opt for balsamic vinegar of Modena from the supermarket. But if you want a vinegar that can affordably do the job of the pricey traditional vinegar, these midprice balsamics are a great option. Because the flavor and consistency can vary from brand to brand, ask for recommendations at your local gourmet shop.
Twenty-one Cook’s Illustrated staff members sampled nine top-selling balsamic vinegars of Modena with Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or IGP, certification. We tasted our lineup plain, in vinaigrette, and as a glaze over asparagus to assess flavor, consistency, and overall appeal. Ingredients are based on label information. Results were averaged and products appear in order of preference.