Balsamic vinegar can be very expensive, or very cheap, and the difference can be mind-boggling. So you wonder just why you can get the same item incredibly cheap, or expensive enough to make you slowly turn around and walk away. You probably figured out the cheaper ones are fakes, or somehow diluted. But if you’ve never had balsamic vinegar, you may be tempted to buy one, just to taste it.
What does balsamic vinegar taste like ? is it worth all that hype ? Does it make everything magically better ? And why is it so dark, compared to other vinegars ? This is the first post of a series we’re doing on balsamic vinegar. It’s a much misunderstood condiment outside of Italy, and we’re here to make things easier to understand for everyone (us included).
What does balsamic vinegar taste like ?
Balsamic vinegar has a distinct depth of flavor that is both sweet and a bit astringent. It’s not as strong as regular vinegar, and it has deep caramel-y, molasses-like notes that pair it very well with most foods. Think chocolate, molasses, and vaguely fruity notes with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
When adding balsamic vinegar you won’t have that strong dash of vinegar, it’s much milder than regular vinegar. It’s also thicker than regular vinegar, due to the aging process and caramelization it undergoes.
Is balsamic vinegar sweet or sour ?
Balsamic vinegar is both sweet and sour, and it’s a much milder vinegar than what most people are used to. It’s usually a 6-7% strength, but that strength is masked in flavor by the mild sweetness and the thickness of the vinegar.
A knock-off bottle of balsamic will usually be a harsh flavor, with some brown sugar thrown in the mix. The result is far from what true balsamic actually tastes like. We’ll talk about real and fake balsamic vinegar in a minute.
Should you shake balsamic vinegar before use ?
No, balsamic vinegar does not need to be shaken before use. It’s a stable liquid and does not separate. The only instance you need to shake balsamic vinegar is when you make a vinaigrette, with olive oil. In that case you do have to shake the bottle, to emulsify the contents.
Does balsamic vinegar need to be refrigerated ?
No, balsamic vinegar does not need to be refrigerated, as long as it’s kept away from direct sunlight and at room temperature. Naturally the colder the room, the better the vinegar will keep, but it survives very well at room temperature.
The main problem with storing balsamic is the sunlight. It comes in these small, dark bottles that filter out sunlight, but they can’t protect it 100%. The coloring is there to protect from accidental exposure, not continuous exposure.
On the counter, at room temperature, and away from direct sunlight, balsamic vinegar can last up to 3 years after opening. After opening, the less vinegar you have in the bottle, the quicker the aroma and strength will fade. So always make sure the bottle is tightly sealed after each use.
How to spot a knock-off balsamic vinegar
Earlier we talked about how cheap the fake balsamic is, compared to the real deal. Now let’s talk about how to spot it on the shelves so you don’t get ripped off.
The first thing to look for is the ingredient list, not the label. The label can legally say ”aceto balsamico” without actually being that (more on that in a minute). Look at the ingredients. A fake balsamic will usually have a more affordable vinegar (like red wine vinegar), sugar, molasses, caramel coloring, and possibly flavorings.
Read also: Why Is Butter So Expensive ?
In some sneaky cases it may claim to be a balsamic vinegar sauce, or solution. That’s when it does contain a bit of balsamic vinegar, like a small percentage of 10-20%, which is diluted with water, other vinegars, and again with food coloring and flavors. That’s a very thinned out balsamic vinegar.
Another way to spot it is by the size of the bottle. True balsamic is very concentrated, and comes in very small bottles, about the size of a salt shaker, not a 16 ounce bottle.
The biggest sign is whether it has one the following three labels. “Aceto balsamico” is not a protected name, but the region it comes from is. So look for one of these two labels:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP
These two are the original, traditional balsamic vinegars produced either in the Modena region or in Reggio Emilia. These are produced from the must of Trebbiano grapes, and follow the traditional recipe.
There is a third, less expensive version, that is still protected. It’s label is Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP, and it uses a blend of Trebbiano grape must and wine vinegar, but is still protected by European law as it’s exclusive to Modena and Reggio Emilia.
What foods go with balsamic vinegar ?
Many foods go with balsamic vinegar because this is a delicious vinegar to pair your food with. And it’s also a bit sweet, so if you’re a fan of sweet-savory foods, you’ll easily find use for this bad boy.
One thing to remember: a little goes a long way. True balsamic vinegar is strong in flavor, so there is no need to cook a reduction. Here’s some of the best foods to pair with balsamic vinegar.
Any sort of cheese you like, but especially an aged, nutty cheese. The vinegar will cut through the richness and bring a whole new dimension to it. Or you can go with fresh mozzarella. It’s light, fairly neutral, and showcases the balsamic wonderfully.
A fresh salad of your choosing, especially if it’s vegetarian. If you add any meat it will still be great, but may overshadow the balsamic a little. So something like a spring or summer salad is definitely something to try out, with fresh white cheese and maybe a couple of sliced radishes.
Caprese salad. That’s the simple yet beautiful fresh tomato, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil salad, with just a drop of olive oil. It’s one of Italy’s signature dishes, and it would pair beautifully with a drop of balsamic on the side.
Add a couple of drops to a fruit salad. It may seem odd, but if you also throw in a couple of mint and basil leaves you’ll completely change your mind about what does and does not go in a sweet salad.
And there you go ! You can now pair balsamic vinegar with whatever you like, as long as it’s delicious. Remember to look for the real thing, otherwise your first encounter with this beauty will be a total letdown. Better to splurge on the real thing and use it sparingly, than to buy a cheaper bottle and be completely disappointed by what you got.