Whether you’ve seen it featured in dishes at your favorite restaurants or noticed the increasing selection of bottles at your local supermarket, in recent years, balsamic vinegar has been experiencing a popularity explosion. Though it’s been around for more than 900 years, many foodies and health enthusiasts are just now discovering the many flavors and benefits this distinctive ingredient has to offer.
For this very reason, here at D’Olivo, we proudly offer more than 40 different varieties of balsamic vinegar in addition to our wide selection of ultra-premium olive oils. So, if you’re ready to quench your curiosity and dive into the complex world of balsamic vinegar, read on to learn everything you’ll ever need to know.
What is Balsamic Vinegar
Though you wouldn’t think it at first, balsamic vinegar is actually made from white grapes. As a grape-based vinegar, balsamic vinegar is made from white grape juice that is cooked down and aged for varying periods of time. Unlike its red and white cousins, balsamic vinegar has a thick consistency close to that of syrup in most cases.
Dark brown and glossy in appearance, traditional balsamic vinegar is viscous and velvety in texture when tasted. Upon tasting, you’ll get a delightfully balanced profile of sweet and tart flavors that provide layer after layer of complexity on the palate.
Fig, chocolate, prune, dark fruit, and even molasses are some of the primary flavors you’ll pick up on, with plenty of secondaries shining through depending on the aging process. Much lower on the acidity spectrum than red and white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar can serve as a welcoming compliment to many dishes.
How Balsamic Vinegar is Made
When it comes to buying balsamic vinegar, much like olive oil, there are different levels of quality which are determined by the production practices used. The three main types of balsamic vinegar are traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (DOP), balsamic vinegar of Modena (IGP), and condimento. Below, we’ve outlined the production methods used for each so you can better understand the differences from bottle to bottle.
Making Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (DOP)
Traditional balsamic vinegar is the highest quality of the three and, as such, the most strictly regulated. These vinegars are made only in Reggio Emilia and Modena, Italy using traditional methods that have been passed down for hundreds of years. In order to ensure all of the standards are met, every step of the process is diligently overseen by a certification agency before a bottle can bear the DOP insignia.
To start, Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes pressed whole, including the seeds, skin, and stems to form grape must. The grape must is then cooked over an open fire until it’s reduced by roughly half before being left to ferment naturally for a few weeks.
Once the fermentation process is complete, the grape must is then transferred into aging barrels for a minimum of 12 years where it will undergo further maturation and concentration. During this process, the grape must will be transferred down a line of no less than 5 aging barrels, each smaller than the last.
To impart the complex flavors traditional balsamic vinegar is known for, the aging barrels are constructed from a variety of woods such as oak, cherry, mulberry, chestnut, and juniper. Each time vinegar is drained from the smallest barrel, it gets topped up with vinegar from the previous cask, each following suit all the way up to the largest barrel which is topped off with new vinegar.
Because no barrel is ever completed drained, it’s almost impossible to tell the true age of a finished balsamic vinegar. Instead, a tasting commission of expert judges sample each finished batch to determine the grade rather than age.
The grading typically goes from red cap (roughly 12 years old), silver cap (roughly 15-20 years old), and gold cap (roughly 20-25 years old). Due to the incredible amount of time and careful aging traditional balsamic vinegars require, some of the finest bottles can go for as much as $100 for just two ounces.
Making Condimento Balsamic Vinegar
As the popularity and demand for balsamic vinegar started to rise, it didn’t take long for other producers to begin popping up. The term “condimento” came about for this very reason, designed to encompass all balsamic vinegars that are made using traditional methods, though not to the standards of the traditional designation.
Even though many balsamic vinegars bearing this title may follow the rigorous DOP standards, because they’re made outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia or without the supervision of authorized personnel, they cannot hold the traditional designation.
Another factor that discourages many producers from chasing after the traditional designation is the 12-year minimum aging requirement. For that reason, it’s not uncommon to find condimento balsamic vinegars from traditional producers that age certain batches for a lesser period of time.
If you want to enjoy the complexities and culinary possibilities of high-quality balsamic vinegar, bottles with the condimento title typically offer a much more attractive price tag while still having many of the qualities you’d find in traditional bottles.
That being said, because the condimento title is not as closely regulated as the DOP designation, you have to look out for lower grade vinegars that are labeled as condimento.
Making Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (I.G.P.)
Balsamic vinegars with the I.G.P. designation only recently came about in 2009, when demand for more affordable vinegars from Modena exceeded supply. Introduced by the European Union, the I.G.P. designation ensures that balsamic vinegars with this seal are produced in and made from grape varietals that are native to Modena.
Unlike both traditional and condimento balsamic vinegars, those with the I.G.P. designation are pressure cooked in vats and barrel-aged for a minimum of two months, though some can be aged for more than three years. Another differentiating factor is the wine vinegar requirement, which is used to bring acidity up to at least 6%.
Once all of these standards are met, companies are free to use thickening and coloring agents to give the balsamic vinegar a more realistic color and texture. Coming in as the most affordable balsamic vinegar of the three, these are extremely versatile in the kitchen, able to be used as is or even reduced down to intensify the flavors and characteristics.
Balsamic Vinegar Uses
Balsamic vinegar has long been loved for its ability to be used as a stand-alone condiment or as an ingredient in a variety of dishes. Depending on the type of balsamic vinegar you have, we’re going to cover the different ways you can get the most out of each bottle.
Due to the complexity and aged nature of traditional balsamic vinegars, it’s recommended that you enjoy them as is. Cooking these delicate vinegars can risk ruining the unique flavors and aromas that have been acquired through years of barrel aging.
To get the most out of each drop, traditional balsamic vinegar is best used as a topping to finished dishes such as steak, risotto, seafood, or even some soups and stews. Venturing outside of savory dishes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well traditional vinegars pair with desserts and appetizers like select cheeses, fresh berries, and even ice cream.
Even though balsamic vinegar can be commonly found in salad dressings, bottles of this quality would be wasted on such a simple dish since you want it to shine as a primary flavor.
Because condimento balsamic vinegar is often close to the traditional quality, it can be used in very much the same way. With more affordable pricing, you can also experiment with different dishes more liberally to see which cuisines compliment the flavors best.
If you want to get creative with it, try using these in marinades or sauces to introduce distinctive flavors in a more subtle manner. You’d be surprised at how much a condimento balsamic vinegar can change flavor profiles with even as little as a few drops!
As we touched on in the last section, balsamic vinegar with the I.G.P. designation is going to be the most affordable and the most versatile in the kitchen. If you want to use balsamic vinegar as a salad dressing, this is your go-to choice since they typically have a higher level of acidity and a less viscous consistency.
Depending on what you intend to use it for, you also have the option of choosing different qualities, with lighter ones expressing more tartness and darker ones bringing out more of the sweetness. Unlike the previous two, you’re able to cook with I.G.P. vinegars since they’re perfect for reducing down in a saucepan to create a balsamic syrup.
Health Benefits of Balsamic Vinegar
While balsamic vinegar is primarily loved for its bold, complex flavors, over the years, studies have suggested that it may be beneficial for your health as well. In this section, we’re going to explore the various ways balsamic vinegar can benefit your body beyond the tastebuds.
1. Lower Cholesterol Levels
Of all the health benefits balsamic vinegar has to offer, the most well documented by far is its ability to help lower cholesterol levels. The antioxidant and polyphenol-rich nature of balsamic vinegar has been shown to have a dramatic effect on the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
In this study, not only was balsamic vinegar shown to lower overall cholesterol levels in the test subjects, but it also helped to reduce the presence of scavenger cells that greatly contribute to LDL levels and arterial blockages.
2. Digestive Aid
Are you a frequent victim of an upset stomach after consuming a large meal or foods that aren’t typically in your diet? As it turns out, balsamic vinegar may actually help your digestive system thanks to the primary active compound, acetic acid.
Containing a rich abundance of healthy probiotic bacteria, acetic acid aids the digestive system by helping it break down food for better absorption. These same probiotic strains also lend a helping hand to the immune system, helping to bolster the body’s defenses against unwanted illnesses and bacteria.
3. Weight Loss Aid
Balsamic vinegar is by no means the magical dietary aid that you’ve been searching for, but studies have suggested that it may help with weight loss goals. Unlike foods that are high in fat, balsamic vinegar relies on its probiotics to help relieve hunger pangs, allowing you to feel full faster than you normally would.
Its effect on the body’s response to glucose is believed to be the primary contributing factor, though only short term. So, if you’re trying to lose weight while still enjoying flavorful dishes, try incorporating balsamic vinegar into meals to aid your efforts.
4. Improve Blood Circulation
Because balsamic vinegar is made from grapes, it’s only natural that it inherits their beneficial properties as well. Studies have found that the juice from grapes is rich in polyphenols, which may help to prevent buildup in the arteries that can lead to a number of cardiovascular diseases and problems.
Though studies are still being conducted on the beneficial properties polyphenols have on the cardiovascular system, the results look promising. It’s for this reason that many believe the Mediterranean diet has healing properties when consumed regularly.
5. Reduce Blood Pressure
Just as balsamic vinegar has been shown to help prevent the formations of blood clots, it can also help keep your blood pressure in check. In a study done on rats, researchers observed that regularly consuming balsamic vinegar had a positive effect on blood pressure.
As with many of the other benefits, researchers believe acetic acid once again served as the primary reason blood pressure was reduced in the rat test subjects. Even though more studies need to be conducted, simply adding a few tablespoons to your diet every day can potentially reduce blood pressure and keep your heart healthy.
6. Improve Skin Health
The vinegar family has long been loved for its ability to help improve skin complexion and reduce the occurrence of acne. Balsamic vinegar is no different, though you’re going to want to avoid applying it directly onto your skin due to its dark color and stain-prone nature.
When consumed regularly, the balanced delivery of antioxidants, antimicrobials, and acetic acid all help support skin health by giving it the necessary nutrients to fight off blemishes and bacteria. Add it to your diet if you find you’re having skin health problems to aid any other efforts and techniques you’re using.
Pairing Balsamic Vinegar with Olive Oil
Up until now, all we’ve been talking about is the different types of basic balsamic vinegar, how they’re best used, and some of the best, research-backed benefits they have to offer. What you may not know is that balsamic vinegar goes far beyond the bottles you’ll find on the shelves at your local supermarket, even when scouting out DOP vinegar.
Outside of the traditional taste, balsamic vinegar happens to be the perfect vinegar for infusing a variety of common and exotic flavors. At D’Olivo, a simple walk through our store will tantalize your imagination with flavors like coconut, tangerine, lavender, and even more unique combinations like blackberry-ginger and champagne.
These are just a few of the exciting flavors balsamic vinegar has to offer, with hundreds of others opening the doors to countless culinary possibilities. Simply combining your favorite flavor with some of our ultra premium extra virgin olive oil can create a dynamic concoction that blows your taste buds away.
To make matters even more complicated, at D’Olivo, we carry dozens of flavored olive oils as well. From traditional blends like sweet and spicy to more exotic combinations such as Sicilian lemon and Tuscan herb, the tasting experience is exciting and unique each time.
If you prefer the traditional taste of balsamic vinegar, experiment with the different olive oil flavors to see how they compliment and express its characteristics. While half the fun comes from trying out new combinations to see what you can come up with, it’s also a good idea to take a pairing lesson.
At D’Olivo, all of our staff members are knowledgeable of the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar pairings while also letting you try your own so you can pick out the perfect flavors for home use.
Get Your Own Balsamic Vinegar
By now, you should have learned everything you’ll ever need to know about balsamic vinegar. From the way it’s made to the various health benefits, balsamic vinegar is quickly becoming a household staple as more and more realize the delicious benefits this historical ingredient has to offer. If we’ve managed to pique your interest and tastebuds alike, check out our collection of balsamic vinegars (both traditional and flavored) and olive oils either online or in-store to see what you’ve been missing out on!