Balsamic Vinegar is something that many Itlaians hold dear to their heart. It takes years to make good Balsamic Vinegar. It has to aged in wooden barrels for over 25 years to get the truly authentic Balsamic Vinegar. As such, finding real traditional Balsamic Vinegar is a bit of a challenge. Even if you do find it, the price will scare off most people. Luckily cheaper alternatives are available and those are in the reach for most people. The challenge is identifying what makes a good Balsamic Vinegar good.
Best Balsamic Vinegar List
Below, you will find a list of some of the Best Balsamic Vinegar on the market. It is ranked based on grade, so get the one that best suits your budget and need.
San Giacomo Tradizionale (Best Overall)
In this category, San Giacomo makes the best Tradizionale vinegar you can buy. It is aged for 25 years and have a gold seal of approval. While there might be better brands, those are rarely available. Since this bottle is so small, I recommend that you only use it for special occasion, unless youre rich then go crazy. Drinking it straight is the best way to enjoy its flavor.
Giuseppe Giusti Gran Deposito Aceto Balsamico (Best Balsamic Vinegar for salads and dipping)
For those of us who do not have that big of a budget, Giuseppe Giusti is a great alternative. They use grape musk and wine vinegar to manufacturer this vinegar. These vinegar is aged a minimum of 12 years so it still have that great wooden barrel taste. Since its still pretty costly, I would use it for things like dipping or salad. You want the taste of the vinegar to shine through.
365 Everyday Value (Best Balsamic Vinegar for Cooking)
If you want to cook with Balsamic, then I recommend the 365 whole food brand. Cooking with the more expensive stuff is just pouring money down the drain. A lot of recipe requires you to reduce it as well, 50 dollar for a dish is not really worth it in my opinion. Use those vinegar for dipping and tasting. The 365 brand is a lot more affordable and suited for cooking. It also only have two ingredients. wine vinegar and concentrated grape must.
Balsamic Vinegar History and Origin
Balsamic Vinegar is located in the region of Modena, the fashion capital of Italy. They carry the tradition of handing bottles of balsamic vinegar from one generation to the next. Only the head of the household would have access to its content. When the well runs low, they would start manufacturing process again. The vinegar was so ingrained in family history that it wasnt even sold to the public. Only higher class Italians from the Ducal Family would have access to it. It wasnt until 1980’s that you can start seeing it for sale.
How is Balsamic Vinegar Made?
Balsamic Vinegar manufacturing starts with grape must. Grape Must is the juice of the grape and not wine. The juice must be cooked the same day the grape is picked. This is to prevent bacteria from forming and causing the vinegar to ferment. During the cooking process, careful control of the heat must be implemented. This helps prevents any carmelization of the sugar. Down the line, this can turn the vinegar to a bitter taste. Every manufacturer will have their own cooking time, that in turn will change the overall flavor of the vinegar.
Its all in the Barrel
After the must has been cooked and reduced, it is then transferred to wooden barrels. These barrels need to be certified by the consortium of Italy. New barrel must be boiled in salt water, cured in wine vinegar for 12 months then boiled again. After it is cured for another 12 month, then can it be officially used.
The choice of the wood will also affect the flavor. Some of the most common wood used is oak, juniper, mulberry and berry wood. The problem is that most of these wood are getting increasingly rare. As a result, these barrels are prized among manufacturer.
Once the barrel has been selected, the grape must is placed in the barrel and left to age. The rooms of which is stored is not artificially climate controlled. They must follow the temperature of the environment. This allows for bacteria to grow accordingly to its region. Once it reaches a certain maturity, the vinegar will then be transferred to the next barrel. This is done so that it can take on the flavor of the new barrel. Because of this, there is a multitude of combination that can affect its overall flavor.
When the barrel aging is done, it is then taking to a panel of judges who will determine whether its suitable to be sold.
Balsamic Vinegar Grade
The challenge that most people face when buying Balsamic Vinegar is being able to tell the difference. There is a stark difference in quality between the dollar store bottle and the 400 dollar traditional bottle. To the layman they’re both the same, but once you get into the manufacturing of Balsamic Vinegar you can see why they cost so much different.
Tradizionale grade Balsamic Vinegar are vinegar that has been aged in Wooden Barrel for at least 25 years. In order for a Balsamic Vinegar to be graded as Tradizionale, the vinegar needs to past the inspection guideline set by the Italy Consortium. The manufacturing process is monitored at key steps to make sure that manufacturer are following guideline.
At the end of the process, they need to pass a testing test by judges who have decades of experience tasting Balsamic Vinegar. They would give the vinegar a score out of 400. If it does not hit the minimum of 229 points, it cannot be sold to the public. While that score may sound low, there is not one vinegar in history that score a perfect 400. Vinegar that scores around 330 point are considered to be truly exception vinegar.
Furthermore, the only ingredients that can be used in manufacturing will be grape must. The vinegar can only develop its flavor through the use of aging. No caramel or grape wine can be added at this level.
The bottles itself are also quite distinct. They are generally short with a wide base. Other vinegar are not allowed to use this design.
Condimento is the next step down on the balsamic grading. Sometimes vinegar who cannot past the tasting panel will be sold under this grade. Other time it will be manufacturer who will make some modification in its manufacturing to get close to the same flavor. Some manufacturer will even mix the Condimento grade of vinegar with Tradizionale to improve its flavor. The more concentration of Tradizionale Balsamic Vinegar the higher the price.
In this grade, you will commonly find other ingredients such as grape vine or caramel to improve its sweetness and flavor. Because the manufacturing of this grade of vinegar is not as stringent you can usually find it at much more “reasonable price” of around 50 dollar. This is what most people in the state consume. You can use it for dipping fruits or adding it to a salad.
At this level, you can find a full list of ingredients. Relatively good balsamic will only have grape musk, wine vinegar and caramel. Manufacturer are more concern with profits than flavor. As such, you can expect to buy these at a much more affordable price. I would not hesitate to use it in cooking or reducing it to a syrup. The cost of investment will be much lower. However, I would not use it for dipping drinking by itself. You can generally find off flavor in it. I would give it to guest who cant tell the difference.
Balsamic Vinegar Uses
How you use Balsamic vinegar will depends on the grade you have. At Tradizionale a lot of Italians will just drink it straight. They will use it as a digestive after a meal. You can even dip it in parmesan cheese and suck on it. This will give a complex variety of flavor.
In the condimento grade, you can use it as a dressing or a dipping sauce with fruits and vegetable. You can still drink it straight if you so wish.
For the supermarket version, I would use it in reduction or in recipe. While you can use the two higher grade for cooking, its a little bit expensive for my wallet.
Best Balsamic Vinegar for Cooking and Drinking Thoughts
In conclusion, the thought and manufacturing of balsamic vinegar easily rival that of wine. You can pay hundreds of dollar just for a few ounces. Luckily, for us normal folk, there are plenty of relatively cheaper alternative. What you ultimately choose will depend on your taste and budget. Although I do recommend tasting the real stuff to see how much different money can buy.
Like Italian Food? Then check out our article on the Best Olive Oil for Dipping Bread.