For years, I swore off balsamic vinegar. I'd intentionally order Caprese salads with just olive oil or request that my mother-in-law cook her favorite shredded Brussels sprouts salad without her go-to balsamic vinegar. This was because what I knew to be balsamic vinegar — a watery, dark caramel-colored liquid with burning acidity — wasn't actually balsamic vinegar at all. It turns out most things labeled balsamic vinegar in the United States are completely different from the complex, subtly sweet, subtly tangy, intensely flavored condiment that originated in Modena, Italy.
How it's classified
The difference is this: in order for balsamic vinegar to be designated as "DOP," aka Denominazione di Origine Protetta, it must be made from cooked grapes and nothing else. The grapes must mature naturally through a long and slow acetification process.
The other certification to look for is "IGP," which translates to a product with "protected geographical indication," and means that the vinegar must be produced and bottled in Modena, Italy. The standards for IGP balsamic aren't as stringent as that for DOP balsamic vinegar, but you're still going to get a very good product that follows strict quality standards and traditional methods.
The third type of balsamic product, the one that makes me run in the other direction, is "balsamic condimento," which includes any balsamic product that doesn't meet DOP or IGP standards. Some might taste delicious, but these are the least regulated forms of balsamic so you won't know exactly what's inside the bottle. Many of them have additional flavorings, sweeteners, and additives to mimic the flavor of DOP or IGP balsamic. But once you taste the real stuff, you won't want to go back.
For the good stuff, I turn to Giusti, the oldest-known commercial producer of balsamic vinegar in the world. The family-owned and operated empire has passed through 17 generations, dating back to 1605, when founders Giuseppe and Francesco Mario Giusti registered their business. Over the next 200 years, they continued to perfect the art of balsamic vinegar and in 1863, presented the first document describing how to make the "perfect balsamic vinegar" at the Agricultural Exhibition of Modena. Fortunately, you don't need to travel back in time — or to Modena, Italy, for that matter — to taste the syrupy, sweet nectar; you can now shop 10 of Giusti's signature balsamic vinegar products in the Food52 shop.
And while you don't need to travel back in time . . . it's certainly fun to do so. Let's do just that. According to Giuseppe Rimedio, COO of Giusti USA, the first known attempts at making a version of balsamic vinegar dates back nearly 2,000 years ago. During this time, most of the world's sugar production came from Central America, South America, and Asia, which was generally very expensive and hard to import to other parts of the world, including Europe. As an alternative, sugar was sometimes made with honey, but this was just as expensive. The one sweet product that was readily available for Europeans, especially Italians, was grapes. "If you want to understand balsamic vinegar, you need to know saba," Rimedio told me in an exclusive interview for Food52. Saba is a Latin word meaning "cooked must of grapes," which is the highly concentrated, sweet product that comes from grapes."
For more than a thousand years, balsamic vinegar was produced in very small quantities throughout Italy, mainly as a sugar substitute for the poor. "At some point, someone took the cooked must of grapes and added a very small quantity of red wine vinegar to start the acidification process. After that, it was aged in barrels and balsamic vinegar was created in the way we are familiar with today," explains Rimedio. "Even now, in Modena, basically every family has some small quantities of barrels because it's a kind of tradition. But that doesn't mean that they are "producers" of balsamic vinegar."
It takes a lot of grapes to produce even a small amount of balsamic vinegar — one liter of balsamic vinegar needs at least 100 kilograms (almost 220 pounds) of grapes — hence why it's been coined the "black gold of Modena."
Eventually, Italians realized that in addition to being an inexpensive sugar substitute, balsamic vinegar was also a powerful digestif. Their diet was rich in pork — think: salty salami and shavings of prosciutto — and the acidity of balsamic vinegar cut through all that pork. Rimedio says it became a tradition for Italians to consume one to two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar after dinner for their digestive health. "Grapes have many properties — with each spoonful of balsamic vinegar, you will consume the equivalent of 5 kilos of grapes," explains Rimedio. Before it was ever sold as a food condiment, Giusti distributed their vinegar to pharmacies throughout Modena for these very health benefits. You can still find the symbol of a red cross on their label today as a nod toward their pharmaceutical past.
Balsamic vinegar eventually became popular throughout Asia, especially in South Korea and Japan for its health benefits; many people, including Rimedio, say that balsamic vinegar is extremely rich in polyphenols, which are believed to help prevent aging in your skin and organs. But the most popular market of all is the United States — he estimates that approximately 33% of the world's balsamic vinegar supply goes to American tables. Still, what you see at the supermarket wouldn't pass muster in most of Italy.
The Giusti difference
Many large-scale producers — especially those larger than Giusti — tend to take shortcuts when it comes to producing balsamic vinegar in order to cut costs. While Giusti ages their balsamic vinegar for a minimum of 12 years, Rimedio says that some companies may age them for as little as four weeks, adding caramel color and other additives to create a falsified flavor and viscosity that resembles a much older product. The difference is that the younger vinegar will be less sweet, less smooth, and less complete than something of 12, or even 100 years.
Rimedio says one is not better than the other; it's just a matter of personal preference. If you're someone who is enchanted by the idea of drinking balsamic vinegar every day, and have the means to do so, a more concentrated, more expensive version is probably going to be more appealing. As for that 100-year-old product, that will cost a pretty penny; each year, Giusti releases 500 bottles of 100-year-old balsamic that retails for more than $1,000. Of course, you can get delicious balsamic vinegar for less than a paycheck; Giusti's products range from $21 to $200, with the most expensive product in our shop being a 25-year aged balsamic. But if you use it sparingly for that occasional Caprese sandwich, and don't care that "cooked grape must" is not the first, second, or even third ingredient on the ingredients list, then you might not make space in your pantry for Giusti. But with a history and product so rich, you probably should.
3 balsamic vinegar recipes
Two tablespoons of really good balsamic vinegar (like Giusti 2 Medaglie d'Oro Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) are used to make a marinade for chicken breasts; the meat soaks in a combination of balsamic and salt for about an hour, before they're pan-seared. Near the end of the cooking process, two more tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and a half stick of butter are added to the pan to create a syrupy glaze for the chicken. The ingredients list is minimal, but the flavor payoff is major.
Now that you know really good balsamic vinegar leans more sweet than savory, it might be a little easier to imagine using it to make a confection, like these homemade caramels. "The balsamic vinegar adds a pleasant tang that cuts the rich caramel and rounds the whole thing out," explains Jesse Szewczyk, author of "Cookies: The New Classics." The recipe calls for a quarter cup of balsamic vinegar — he doesn't recommend one particular brand, but you know we will (hint: it's Giusti).
Another sweet example of using really good quality balsamic vinegar for something sweet — this time, it's an ice cream sauce, soon to be your new favorite. Don't take my word for it? Ask our readers for backup; they voted this Food52's best recipe with vinegar.