balsamic vinegar

The Truth About Balsamic Vinegar

We share the secrets to buying (and enjoying) quality balsamic vinegar - without going broke.

Traditionally aged balsamic vinegar, imported from northern Italy, typically carries a hefty price tag - often as much as $80 per ounce. But if you’ve spent any time browsing the shelves at your local grocery store, you know you can pick up a good-sized bottle of balsamic vinegar for under $5. So, what gives?

If you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of 12-year-old barrel-aged balsamic vinegar sitting in your pantry, use it sparingly. “Save the good stuff for special occasions, or for dishes where you want the vinegar to be the flavor star,” advises Mark McDonough, of the Panera Bread culinary team. “I would drizzle traditionally aged balsamic on homemade ice cream, but use more affordable commercial varieties for salads, marinades, and other everyday sort of dishes.”

So how do you bring home the best everyday balsamic? Often a good selection - in any price category - comes down to trial and taste for personal preference. So, it’s smart to skip the economy bottles and go smaller when first taste-testing. When making a selection, Mark says, “think of balsamic vinegar like you would wine or champagne. You don’t necessarily want to buy the least expensive bottle or the most expensive bottle on the shelf. But you do want to look for something in-between.”

And then it’s time to taste. Most balsamic vinegars vary on three points: sugar content, thickness, and acidity. If you want a commercially made vinegar that tastes like it was aged in oak barrels, Mark suggests looking for:

A high sugar content. The best traditionally aged balsamic vinegars have a genuine sweetness to their flavor. You’ll want to find a commercially made brand that can mimic this quality.

A rich pour. Look for one that is not too thin or watery. Good balsamic vinegar is thicker than white vinegar, and will have some stick to it when drizzled over cheese or fruit.

A bit of tanginess to the flavor. It’s important to have a complementary balance of sweetness and acidity; one truly depends on the other to enhance the overall taste.