Balsamic vinegar is one of those delicious condiments that confuses many people, and is frequently duped. So much that you rarely find real, traditional balsamic vinegar on the market outside of Italy. So you may be wondering what’s so special about this type of vinegar. Well, the flavor is deep and complex, the result of aging for 12-25 years in wooden barrels.
But why is balsamic vinegar so sweet ? If it’s vinegar it’s got no business being sweet, right ? Is it artificially sweetened ? And what is it made of, anyway ? Let’s talk about this in detail, because it’s important to know what you’re paying for if you ever decide to get real, actual balsamic vinegar. This is the second part of our balsamic vinegar post series.
Why is balsamic vinegar sweet ?
Balsamic vinegar is sweet because it’s made from cooked down sweet grape must, and then left to ferment and age in wooden barrels for up to 25 years, and at least 12. It gets its flavors from the grapes, but also from the wooden caskets, like cherry, oak, juniper, and chestnut. This results in a deep, complex flavor with a distinct sweetness.
It’s not overly sweet, but it’s definitely sweet enough to be used in fruit salads, and it brings a beautiful tart note to everything.
Why is balsamic vinegar black ?
Balsamic vinegar appears black because it goes through a process of caramelization as the grape must cooks down. As it cooks, a lot of moisture evaporates and the natural sugars in the must caramelize and turn a darker color.
This color is further enhanced as the vinegar sits in wooden caskets to ferment, eventually turning an inky dark brown, nearly black. When you drizzle a bit of balsamic vinegar, you’ll notice it’s actually a dark, chocolate brown where you can see through it.
Fake balsamic vinegar has food coloring added to achieve that color, and may be easier to see through the bottle.
Is aged balsamic vinegar thick ?
Yes, aged balsamic vinegar is thick, or at least thicker than regular vinegar of any kind. This is due to the sugar content, which thickens the vinegar, the same way it can thicken a jam or regular sugar syrup.
Fake balsamic vinegar may have thickeners added to simulate the consistency. If you’re wondering just how thick balsamic vinegar should be, it’s a bit like real, pure maple syrup (not the flavored corn syrup kind).
Read also: What Does Endive Taste Like ?
Because of that thickness, reducing real balsamic vinegar is not really necessary, as it’s already sweet and thick. But it’s common practice with counterfeit balsamic, to give it a better flavor and texture.
How can you tell if balsamic vinegar is real ?
Real balsamic vinegar is a bit thick, because it’s been aged for at least 12 years. This is a crafted condiment, and a lot of work goes into making it a truly exceptional vinegar. It’s also very expensive, and that means prime counterfeiting material. So let’s look at a few markers of balsamic vinegar, how they can be duped, and what you should look for.
Look for a DOP or PDO label
The first and best way to check your balsamic vinegar for authenticity before you even buy it is to check the label. This is one of those food items that has a protected name and region. The only two authentic labels are:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP
These two labels tell you the balsamic vinegar is made by the traditional method, and in one of the two protected regions: Reggio Emilia and Modena, which are 23.7 km/14.7 mi away from each other.
There is a third label, also protected, and it signifies a balsamic vinegar that was made quicker than the traditional method. It also uses wine vinegar, aside from the grape must. This leads to a less sweet, less complex, and more affordable balsamic vinegar. The label is Aceto Balsamico di Modena. This label is also IPG/PGI protected.
DOP/PDO and PGI/IGP
DOP or POD is a very strict European protection law that applies to different foodstuffs. It stands for Protected Designation of Origin, and it means the product is exclusively made in that specific area, which results in qualities and properties unique to that area. It is the strictest label.
PGI or IGP is a bit more lax, and stands for Protected Geographical Indication. It means the product has been made at least partially in a specific area, or the ingredients come from that area and are assembled somewhere else. The resulting product is often close in quality to PDO products, but is not as authentic.
So what does this mean for your balsamic vinegar ? PDO is the 100% real stuff, the aged for decades kind of balsamic vinegar that is made 100% from aged and fermented grape must. This is the old, traditional method.
The PGI has cut a few corners but still delivers a good balsamic vinegar. This is a newer, more affordable method.
Aceto balsamico, no mention of Modena
Another important point is the mention of Modena or Reggio Emilia in the label. If that affordable bottle of Aceto balsamico does not state a region, and has neither DPO nor PGI, it’s a counterfeit.
They can legally claim it to be balsamic vinegar, even if it’s not. As long as it doesn’t claim to be from a specific area, the label doesn’t matter.
Check the thickness of the vinegar
If you’re holding the bottle, tilt it a little. You should see the vinegar run just a little slow from one side to the other. If it’s real, it’s a bit thick and should have one of those two authentic labels on it. The older the vinegar, the thicker it is.
If it has no authentic label, but it’s still thick, check the ingredients and you will find some sort of thickener. Could be flour, could be tapioca, corn starch, guar gum, xanthan gum, or something similar. That’s a counterfeit balsamic vinegar, and a closer look at the rest of the ingredients will confirm that.
Taste the vinegar for depth of flavor
If you’ve already bought the bottle, taste a drop or two. It may be a bit sweet, yes, but is there depth of flavor ? Is there more than just sweetness to it ?
Can you detect other flavors, aside from a sweet and tart flavor ? You should be able to detect a bit of grape, molasses, and a wood essence. This is a vinegar that was aged in wooden caskets and has a very well developed flavor.
If it’s just sweet and sour, you’re wasting your time with it.
Check the price tag
It may be a bit cliche, but really the price tag will tell you a lot. True, traditional balsamic vinegar takes literal decades to produce, and is always in small batches.
A 100 ml/3.3 oz bottle aged for 12 years is around $52, while a 25-year-old one is around $80. This is converted from the Amazon Italy prices of 2021, and does not include shipping. To all this, add import and tax fees, and you can easily, easily get a double price.
Is the bottle you’re holding $10 ? That’s likely a counterfeit, not even PGI (the more affordable one) is that low. You may be wondering if it’s really worth it.
In all honesty, we think it is worth it. You don’t use it every day, and you only need a little each time. You can’t dress a whole salad with this stuff, it’d be a waste. This is a precious condiment, much like real truffle oil. You buy a small bottle now and you have it for 2-3 years.