Balsamic vinegars are one of Italy's most important culinary legacies. The word balsamic is based on the Latin word balsam, or “to feel better.” Balsamic vinegar is made by boiling grape juice, and moving the juice into increasingly smaller casks over the years. The wood of the casks affects the flavor and aroma. It’s important that the vinegar tastes of all the different woods that house it. Each producer has its own - carefully guarded - family secrets for their signature flavor and quality. Vinegars take 10 to 25 years to age and become more concentrated, richer in flavor and more expensive over time. After 15 years the vinegar begins to get good, and after 30 years much better. After 50 years, it deserves the name balsamic.
Rich and syrupy balsamic is delicious sprinkled over cheese, vegetables, fruit, desserts and more. Supermarket-grade balsamic vinegar is great for everyday use in cooking and salad dressings. But if you want to invest in a bottle you'll cherish for a long time - and only break out to drizzle over special recipes - here is what to look for on the label:
Not all vinegars are "Balsamic"
There are two main types of vinegar that can be called "balsamic" under Italian law:
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP is considered the ultimate Italian vinegar. It takes at least twelve years of maturing for the vinegar to reach the perfect balance of aromas and flavor that allows it to bear the title of Protected Origin Denomination (DOP). For this reason, it tends to be the most expensive.
The letters IGP on the label of a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP stands for Protected Geographical Indication, and means that the vinegar is still produced and bottled in Modena (Italy) to earn the label, but the grapes in IGP vinegars can come from anywhere in the world.
All balsamic vinegars that don’t meet the IGP or DOP standards are considered condimento. Some condimento vinegars are excellent but we recommend to always check the ingredient list before you buy. Condimento grade balsamics often have added sugar and coloring to mimic the sweetness and look of aged balsamic.
Older means sweeter!
Aging yields an intense sweetness with a thick, syrupy texture and a smooth finish. Depending on the type of barrels used for aging, the vinegars will have hints of oak, cherry, and other woods. The color of the label or cap indicates the minimum level of aging:
Red (Affinato/ Fine) = 12 year vintage
Silver (Vecchio/ Old) = 15 - 20 year vintage
Gold (Extra Vecchio/ Extra Old) = 20 - 25+ years
What will you use it for?
Balsamic DOP is expensive so you want to use it sparingly, and for simple dishes where balsamic is the star. Consider drizzling it over cheese or fruit, or dessert, and you’ll taste the difference. A high-end aged balsamic is best used as a finishing touch and never to be cooked. Avoid using it in dishes with strong flavors, like spicy food or steak or fish -- it's expensive and complex-tasting, and you want it to shine.
Most IGP vinegars are more like vinegar, or wine. Use them in cooking, such as in a sauce, or in a dish like risotto or stew, where you’ll notice the flavor.
A good condimento is ideal for salad dressings and marinades. The flavor of these vinegars won’t be as sweet or complex, so they’re best when playing a supporting role.
Now that you know what to look for, check out our selection of balsamic vinegars. Balsamic vinegars make a great gift! If you want to learn more about shipping, contact Rose!