The balsamic break-down: Here's what makes this Italian condiment so special

Syrupy, sweet, and acidic — balsamic vinegar has a long history of kitchen versatility

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published June 14, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Balsamic vinegar over swordfish carpaccio (Getty Images)
Balsamic vinegar over swordfish carpaccio (Getty Images)

Standing in the harsh light of my refrigerator, I've enjoyed many an impromptu "meal" of just a large hunk of torn baguette positively bathed in balsamic, topped with shards of hastily sliced Parmigianino and maybe a sliver of fresh mozzarella. Prosciutto di Parma or braseola may also sometimes find its way into these delectable mini-sandwiches. I'd argue that there may be no better snack to hastily consume whilst standing in the kitchen. 

The confluence of Italian cured meats, Italian cheeses, good-quality bread, olives, and balsamic is like nothing else. (I'd throw some arugula, pesto, or even sundried tomato spread on it, too, but then we're crossing into legitimate sandwich territory and I digress). 

Balsamic vinegar may be one of the most elusive ingredients in terms of identifying, and thereby writing about, its flavor profile. But that also provides a welcome writing challenge to chew on (forgive me for the pun). Syrupy, sweet, and acidic, it provides buoyancy and heft to anything it is added to, sometimes veering into an elixir that straddles the savory/sweet disparity more so than any other condiment. While the oft used "balsamic vinaigrette" has made the excellent vinegar ubiquitous, it is so much more than just that.

One of the first times I truly understood balsamic's unique ability to bolster anything it is added to is when a childhood friend's father drizzled a high-quality balsamic on some super crispy chicken cutlets. Since that day maybe 20 years ago, I still drizzle some balsamic on my chicken cutlets whenever I cook or eat cutlets — which, admittedly, is quite often. Something about the confluence of the reliable standby that is chicken cutlet, accentuated by the punchy, piquant flavors of balsamic, renders this absolutely irresistible. My 13-year-old palate has matured exponentially in the years since — but this is one flavor profile that resonates just as deeply as it did on that hot summer day.

Taste deems balsamic "the original vinegar," and notes that balsamico means "curative." SeriousEats notes that balsamic vinegar dates back as far as 1046 (woah), when a Roman Emperor was gifted a bottle. It originates in the Emilia-Romagna region  — as well as Modena — and is prized for its fruity, forward flavor. 

What's Cooking America notes that balsamic was said to have been used in the Middle Ages as a disinfectant and a "miracle cure," which reportedly helped to ease sore throats and labor pains. Nutritionally, balsamic is rich in manganese, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and polyphenols, which is said to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer and boost immunology, according to The Spruce Eats.  

Today, some bottles can be incredibly costly, while others are immensely economical. "Traditional balsamic" is still only made in Reggio Emilia and Modena. It is made from grape must, usually only Lambruso or Trebbiano varieties, which is cooked, concentrated, pressed, and fermented before being "aged" for at least 12 years. 

The aging barrels are often made of oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, or mulberry, and these flavors permeate the aging vinegar, further helping to deepen its complex, hard-to-identify flavors. Traditional balsamic is also thicker than "cheaper" varieties and can be more of a syrupy consistency. There are also expert judges and special commissions that rate and regulate the quality of the vinegar.

The varieties of balsamic can be broken down into three distinct categories: balsamic vinegar (can be purchased nearly anywhere), Aceto Balsamic di Modena IGP (the second tier), and the piece de resistance — Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or Reggio Emilia), according to The Spruce Eats.  Some bottles, like the ones labeled stravecchio, age for about 25 years. 

Regardless of variety, the flavor is deep, rich, and complex, but the traditional balsamic is on another level entirely. Similar to the revered Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic also carries a D.O.P — or  Denominazione d'Origine Protetta — and its technical name is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. 

The high-quality, viscous variety shouldn't be cooked as its flavor is too pure and complex, but instead, used as a flavoring agent at the end of cooking or perhaps even drunk as a tonic or palette cleanser. The IGP variety is less flavorful and less thick. IGP Balsamic is certified for being from a particular region in Italy.

There are also balsamic-inspired and balsamic imitations that run rampant on grocery store shelves throughout the states, such as glazes and syrups. White balsamic, while delicious, is also not a true balsamic. Again, all of these condiments are wonderful, but from a technical perspective, only a few qualify as "real" balsamic. 

The Spruce Eats also notes that balsamic has a "very long" shelf life, which is most pleasing to a balsamic gourmand such as myself. Of course, some of the flavors inherent within balsamic are very wine-forward, especially since many of the same grapes used to produce widely-renowned wines are also used to make balsamic.  The acidity of balsamic also tends to be a bit more balanced than other vinegars, while the flavors are still heady, astringent, and umami-forward. Some balsamics seem to have more in common with grape juice, wine, or soy sauce than generic vinegars like red wine. If you're insistent on making a reduction or a syrup, feel free — but do not use the higher-quality, more expensive versions.

Traditional balsamic is really only sold in Italy and online (and it is EXPENSIVE), while the "second tier" vinegar can be found at higher-end grocery stores in the United States, where it began being sold in the late 1970s. Interestingly enough, there is actually a well-reviewed balsamic made in New Mexico! Called Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello, it has received high marks from many chefs, writers, and food personalities. 

Simply Recipes notes that a balsamic that lists wine vinegar as its first ingredient will be tart, while a balsamic that lists grape must as its first ingredient will be sweet. 

Of course, any balsamic makes a superb vinaigrette. Combine it with some olive oil, shallots, herbs, salt and pepper and a touch of mustard or honey — for emulsification, viscosity, and flavor — and you're set. Simplicity at its finest. Some finely minced garlic also certainly wouldn't hurt! 

Taste also notes that balsamic can act as a tenderizer for meats and poultry, which explains why it's often a customary marinade ingredient. Many balsamics also mix beautifully with fruit, such as strawberry, figs, or watermelon and then topped with torn basil or mint. 

America's Test Kitchen has a recipe that is purportedly an approximation of "$300 balsamic," which happens to include reducing balsamic, sugar, and port. The final step of the method is to "enjoy like a fancy pants." Cute — but balsamic is stellar regardless of its cost and should be used with reckless abandon in kitchens across the land. 

So chop up some mozzarella and tomatoes, chiffonade some basil, and generously drizzle balsamic all over (and I mean generously) before eating with verve. Balsamic is an absolute treat — a balm, a curative, a condiment like no other — and it should be celebrated and enjoyed as such.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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