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Balsamic Vinegar Ultimate Guide: Uses, Benefits, Modena, Brands

Balsamic Vinegar Ultimate Guide: Uses, Benefits, Modena, Brands

Balsamic vinegar is a really confusing thing. Some bottles sell for $3.00 and some for over $150. I became frustrated in searching so I put together this ultimate guide about the different types of balsamic vinegar, benefits, and uses, whether they are all from Modena, Italy and much more.

Here’s what I learned:

Balsamic vinegar was created in Italy under the name Aceto Balsamico. Traditional balsamic is fermented in wood barrels & aged under strict Italian regulation. But high demand in the US led to a cheaper version which is what you see on grocery shelves and is a blend of balsamic, wine vinegar & caramel coloring.

I recently wrote an article that turned out to be the Ultimate Guide to Olive Oil (click to read my article), so I thought it might make sense to do the same thing for balsamic vinegar since they go so well together.

And thanks to my 2+ decades at Whole Foods Market, I definitely know a lot about balsamic vinegar. But I still did some digging to make sure this was the ultimate guide to balsamic vinegar.

But there’s a lot more about balsamic vinegar and some great reasons why you might pay $3 dollars for one bottle and $75 for another, so let’s dive in!

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

What is balsamic vinegar?

Balsamic vinegar is made from grape juice. But there are so many different ways of making it, ways of bottling and labeling it and prices, that the similarities really end there.

It’s also not correct to refer to it as a wine vinegar as the grape juice used to make it has not been fermented or turned into wine. Cheaper varieties of balsamic vinegar are sometimes mixed with red wine vinegar though.

Balsamic vinegar was first made in Modena Italy about 900 years ago and was originally used as a health tonic.

Many of you reading this are used to seeing bottles on your grocery store shelves that are $3-$4 a bottle for about a 16oz bottle.

It might surprise you to learn that traditional balsamic vinegar can cost upwards of $100 or more for not even 1/4 the size of the bottle. It might surprise you even more than traditional balsamic vinegar isn’t great as a salad dressing (and it would be too expensive anyway). It’s best drizzled on fruit, ice cream, or as a condiment on grilled meats and fish.

Balsamic vinegar you see in stores is typically a mixture of grape must (what traditional balsamic vinegar is made from) and red wine vinegar. Some brands also add caramel color (basically sugar) to darken the color and add sweetness.

Chances are unless you’re a real foodie, you’ve probably only ever had this type of balsamic vinegar. Make no mistake, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a $4.00 bottle of balsamic vinegar and that’s what’s on my kitchen counter right now.

It’s just that purists don’t consider that to be real balsamic vinegar. But really, we’re just talking about 2 separate things that happen to be labeled similarly.

What is traditional balsamic vinegar?

Traditional balsamic vinegar is also known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or) Reggio Emilia.

Chances are unless you’re a foodie, you’ve never seen traditional balsamic vinegar. This product is extremely regulated by the Italian government. It’s also quite pricey as it’s often over $100 for a very small bottle.

Unlike the cheap stuff you see on your grocer’s shelves, this is made by crushing and cooking the must of the white Trebbiano and Lambrusco grape. Must simply refer to freshly crushed grapes including stems and seeds. Then they cook it down, reducing it about 70%.

The end result is extremely concentrated.

True, traditional balsamic vinegar isn’t fermented. Thus, it is NOT a wine vinegar. It is, however, aged to create the amazing flavor it eventually gets. Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged in wooden barrels, moving through a series of smaller and smaller barrels to get to the finished product.

How long tradizionale is aged and how it is labeled:

  • Vecchio – aged 12 years
  • Extra Vecchio – aged 25 years

That being said, it’s illegal (in Italy) to label bottles of traditional balsamic vinegar with an age number.

One other thing that separates traditional balsamic vinegar from other balsamic vinegar is the bottle. As dictated by Italian law, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is only available in 100ml bottles designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro (famous Italian automaker).

No matter who is producing traditional balsamic vinegar, they are all required to use his bottle.  Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, while similarly regulated, does come in a different bottle.

Reggio Emilia also allows some bottles to be aged for 18 years in addition to the 12 and 25.

In terms of flavor, because it was never wine or fermented, traditional balsamic vinegar is much less tart than regular balsamic. It works great drizzled on strawberries and other fruit. It does not, however, work great as a salad dressing since it is sweeter than it is tart and it’s far thicker than most vinegar.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is truly unique, amazing in flavor, and unless you’ve tried it, you really have never actually had real balsamic vinegar.

Does all balsamic vinegar come from Modena?

No is the short answer, as some very good balsamic vinegar also comes from the nearby Italian city of Reggio Emilia, which is about 10 miles away from Modena.

So if we’re talking about traditional balsamic vinegar, those only come from Modena or Reggio Emilia.

But for the inexpensive store-bought brands, while you do often see Modena mentioned (much more often than you do Reggio Emilia), not everything is from Modena.

The EU has put in place a label which states PGI (sometimes IPG) which stands for Protected Geographical Indication which indicates production in Modena and also that they conform to certain regulations in the production.

Also, there are starting to be some producers from other countries making balsamic vinegar. Italian and EU regulations probably affect the labeling of these products. The most noteworthy of these is actually produced in New Mexico in the village of Monticello.

This brand is called Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello.

Their product uses only organic Italian grapes, is aged 21 years and is priced similarly to other traditional balsamic vinegar at around $150 for a 4.5 oz bottle.

How can you tell real balsamic vinegar?

If by “real” you mean traditional balsamic vinegar, the difference is easy to spot.

Traditional balsamic vinegar will be :

  • Expensive (at least $75/bottle if not twice that)
  • The bottle will be quite small (fewer than 5 oz)
  • The product will be significantly thicker than inexpensive balsamic vinegar
  • It will be far less tart and a lot sweeter

Then there are also differences in the bottling and labeling too which we went into above.

That being said, even among traditional balsamic vinegar there is confusion, mislabeling, and outright deception. For starters, if you see any mention of how long it was aged, that’s not “real” traditional balsamic.

Traditional, or tradizionale from Modena, will only be labeled Vecchio (aged 12 years) or Extra Vecchio (25 years).

If it’s from Reggio Emilia, they are also allowed to do an 18 year. Some Reggio Emilia producers only use a colored labeled to designate age as follows:

  • Red Lobster (Bollino aragosta) aged for a minimum of 12 years
  • Silver Seal (Bollino Argento) aged for 12 to 25 years
  • Gold Seal (Bollino Oro Extravecchio) aged for at least 25 years

Another clue to faux-tradizionale is when they say “traditional style”. It may be aged and it may be good, but it’s not tradizionale.

Lastly, if it’s not at least $70/bottle, it’s basically just a fancier version of the stuff you but for $4.00 in the grocery store.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad, and it could be very good. But it’s not traditional balsamic vinegar (and it would also be illegal to sell that in Italy so you mostly see it in the US).

Beyond that, in just the general inexpensive store-bought balsamic vinegar, the easiest way to tell if you’re getting genuine balsamic vinegar of Modena is to look for the PGI label (sometimes IPG).

PGI stands for Protected Geographical Indication which indicates production in Modena and also that they conform to certain regulations in the production.

One question you might not have thought of is whether balsamic vinegar is flammable. After all, you might need to know that for safety reasons or maybe you want to flambé with vinegar.

Either way, I have the answer for you in a recent article. Just click that link to read it on my site.

What is the I.G.P. stamp and does that matter?

IPG (sometimes labeled PGI) stands for Protected Geographical Indication.

This was put in place by the EU to help designate and regulate the less expensive version of balsamic vinegar of Modena. It indicates the vinegar was, in fact, produced in Modena and adheres to strict standards of production, ingredients, and aging.

Is there likely some good vinegar out there without that designation?

Undoubtedly. Also, know that for the most part, we’re talking about the cheap vinegar here and not traditional balsamic vinegar.

So look for the label mostly if you want balsamic vinegar from Modena as anything labeled Balsamic vinegar of Modena that doesn’t say that is a little suspect. If the vinegar was produced somewhere other than Modena, it’s not going to get that label anyway, so it’s less important.

To get the IGP stamp or label, balsamic vinegar must follow these standards:

  • Must have at least 20% grape must (boiled or concentrated)
  • Must contain at least 10% wine vinegar (as opposed to other cheaper vinegar)
  • Can contain 2% caramel coloring (caramelized sugar, used to darken the product)
  • Must contain a small amount of aged balsamic vinegar (aged at least 10 years, but they don’t require a set amount)

The grapes must also be grown in the Emilio Romana Region in Italy. Lastly, the vinegar has to be made and bottled in the Modena region by officially designated companies.

What does DOP mean on bottles of traditional balsamic vinegar?

DOP stands for denomination of controlled origin (or Denominazione di Origine Protetta in Italian). That means that everything from grape growing to final aging and bottling has to be done in a specific area (Modena or Reggio Emilia).

Like IGP, it is a designation designed to eliminate confusion and to help clarify what it is and where it’s from.

Unlike IGP, DOM also regulates what kind of grapes can be used in the bottling of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or) Reggio Emilia.

Only 7 varietals of Italian grapes can be used in traditional balsamic vinegar:

  • Lambrusco
  • Ancellotta
  • Trebbiano
  • Sgavetta
  • Sauvignon
  • Berzemino
  • Occhi di Gatta

The grape must from the grapes then has to be kept for a minimum of 60 days in used wine or liquor barrels. It specifies used as new wood would tend to release too many tannins and cloud the flavor of the finished product.

Of course, the product is then aged 12, 18 (only in Reggio Emilia), or 25 years depending on which designation they wish. But before bottling and labeling, a panel of 5 taste masters judge and score the product to ensure it is up to standard.

What is condimento balsamico?

Condimento Balsamico, is sometimes referred to as Condimento alone or Balsamico alone.

Like traditional balsamic vinegar, condimento balsamico is also made with grape must and aged in the same wooden barrels. While it is aged as traditional balsamic vinegar, the producer often decides the length rather than having a set standard of aging as is the case with traditional.

Condimento Balsamico is usually a lot less expensive than tradizionale DOP since it is not necessarily aged as long, isn’t as heavily regulated and could even be mixed with wine vinegar if the producer didn’t feel it had the right acidity.

Thus, it’s not uncommon to find bottles of condimento balsamico in the $30-$50 range.

Condimento Balsamico is regulated by the Consorzio Balsamico. That same organization also tends to regulate most producers of tradizionale balsamico as well.

Want to see a list of all 51 companies currently regulated by the Consorzio? Check out their handy list.

What is balsamic vinegar made of?

In traditional balsamic vinegar, true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or) Reggio Emilia, there is but one ingredient: grape must.

Cooked grape must is also known as saba and you can find saba in some specialty grocery shops. Unlike tradizionale balsamico, saba hasn’t gone through any aging process, but it is still a tasty condiment if you can find it.

Grape must is simply cooked grape juice. Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes are most commonly used, but for traditional balsamic vinegar, they are also allowed to use Ancellotta, Sgavetta, Sauvignon, Berzemino or Occhi di Gatta grapes as well.

So if you are lucky enough to find yourself holding a bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (or) Reggio Emilia, the ONLY ingredient will be grape must.

But for store-bought inexpensive bottles of balsamic vinegar, you’ll get a mixture of grape must, red wine vinegar and often, caramel coloring (sugar) which is more used to darken the vinegar than it is to sweeten it.

How long is balsamic vinegar aged?

There used to be a lot of confusion with labeling and age on bottles of balsamic vinegar.

As I said above, traditional balsamic vinegar is aged either 12 years (labeled Vecchio) or 25 years (labeled Extra Vecchio).

But for those of us used to seeing the cheap bottles on the grocery shelves, in most cases, they have only been aged for 2 months. If it says “aged” in that case, it’s most likely been aged for 3 years.

Like traditional balsamic vinegar, the cheap stuff also gets aged in wood barrels.

Another confusing thing about balsamic vinegar aging is that sometimes you’ll see products labeled as aged 50 or 100 years.  In reality, in Italian writing, you’ll most often see “100 travasi” or “50 travasi”. Travasi means topping up, not years.

Thus, the vinegar is NOT been aged anywhere near that long. And the shop advertising it that way is either clueless or trying to deceive you (neither of which is good).

It’s also worth noting that vinegar doesn’t age in the bottle the way wine does. Thus, a cheaper bottle of balsamic vinegar will never take on the properties of traditional balsamic vinegar just by letting the bottle sit for a few years.

What does travasi mean on bottles of balsamic vinegar?

On fancier bottles of balsamic vinegar, it’s not uncommon to see the terms travasi.

Often the terms are accompanied by a number such as 50 travasi or even 100 travasi. Some people mistake this for the number of years a product was aged, which is incorrect.  You also sometimes find less informed or less scrupulous vendors mislabeling these as aged 50 or 100 years.

The word travasi means to decant, siphon, or pour off.

In terms of tradtional balasamic vinegar as the product ages, it gets moved from one large wooden barrel to a smaller one, and then to another smaller one and so on. Most move through anywhere from 5-7 barrels, which together are called a batteria (which means array, not barrel).

The bottled product is taken from the smallest bottle once the proper age has been reached. But since they are removing some from one barrel to the next (travasi ) and evaporation also takes place, the process of topping off the barrels with new freshly cooked grape must is called rincalzo.

So when you see the term 50 travasi that means that the barrels have gone through the process of removing and topping off 50 times.

Is balsamic vinegar good for you?

The short answer is yes. There are a number of official studies that point to the various health benefits of balsamic vinegar.

As I mentioned above, balsamic vinegar was originally created in Modena Italy as a health tonic. So it definitely has what a lot of folks believe to be health properties.

Here are some of the top claims of health benefits of balsamic vinegar:

  • Helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels – In a recent study by the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, they found that “Balsamic vinegar dramatically inhibited LDL oxidation” and “contained abundant polyphenols” all of which can help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol.
  • Maintains good digestive health – Like many quality kinds of vinegar, the acetic acid in balsamic vinegar contains probiotics, just like you would find in yogurt or kombucha. According to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health, probiotics help with “the prevention and treatment of . . . bowel disorders such as lactose intolerance, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and allergy”.
  • Helps with healthy weight management – Those same probiotics can help us feel fuller longer, and thus can help curb appetites ultimately playing a role in how many calories we take in each day.
  • Balsamic is rich in antioxidants – According to a recent study published by Science Direct, balsamic vinegar is rich in polyphenols, micronutrients, and antioxidants. They found that the “bioactive compounds found in vinegars that contribute to their pharmacological effects, among them, antimicrobial, antidiabetic, antioxidative, antiobesity and antihypertensive effects.”

So ultimately while not medicine, balsamic vinegar as part of your overall diet can certainly help you maintain and regulate your health.

What’s the difference between balsamic vinegar and regular vinegar?

As you see on your grocer’s shelves, there are MANY types of vinegar. The most common kinds you’ll see include:

  • Apple cider vinegar
  • White vinegar
  • Red and White wine vinegar
  • Flavored vinegar

And, of course, that’s in addition to various kinds of balsamic vinegar.

The primary difference between all of those is the initial ingredient used to create it. We’ve already covered that balsamic vinegar starts with cooked grape must (also known as saba).

White vinegar is best for cleaning and dying Easter eggs and really has no place in good cooking.

White vinegar is made from either grain-based ethanol or it is pure acetic acid made chemically and then diluted with water. Thus, it is to wine vinegar what the alcohol Everclear is to a good bottle of wine.

Apple cider vinegar, as the name obviously implies, is made from apple cider. Good quality apple cider vinegar is left raw (uncooked) and contains the “mother” which is essentially the acetic acid bacteria that creates the probiotics in the vinegar.

Red and white wine vinegar are made, also as the name implies, from wine (although in many cases, not great wine as they otherwise wouldn’t waste it). That being said, you will occasionally see well-known wine and sherry companies who make wine or sherry vinegar. These are often much higher quality and price.

You can make vinegar from almost any food that has naturally occurring sugars.

Yeast turns the sugar into alcohol. Then bacteria turns that alcohol into vinegar over time. The final product still has flavors that remind us of the source food, but the acetic acid is what gives it the unique, tart flavor.

What is the difference between white balsamic vinegar and balsamic vinegar?

White balsamic vinegar, known in Italy as Aceto Balsamico Bianco, is made in a similar process to the lower cost balsamic vinegar on grocery shelves.

As with red and white wine, what makes red wine red is the addition of the skins in the fermentation process as both red and white can start with the same grapes.

So in making white balsamic vinegar, they remove the skins as the cooking starts. Then, instead of aging in wood barrels, they age it in stainless steel barrels to prevent the wood from darkening the color.

The final product is more of a golden yellow than a truly clear product.

White balsamic can probably be found in Italy but was really created more for the US market which began it’s love affair with balsamic vinegar in the late 1970s and eventually had a demand for something with that flavor that wouldn’t color food the way regular balsamic vinegar does.

Is there a lot of sugar in balsamic vinegar?

Ultimately we’re talking about a product that started with grapes, so yes; there will be sugars remaining in a bottle of balsamic vinegar. That being said, any quality brand of balsamic vinegar (even the cheap stuff) won’t be adding sugar to it.

A quarter cup of balsamic vinegar, like you might toss in a salad designed to feed several people, contains about 56 calories. Like all vinegar, it will not contain any fat.

For that same quarter cup, the vinegar will have about 9.5 grams of sugars and 10.5 grams of total carbs.

For those of you following a keto diet, since you generally want to keep total carbs under 50 grams/day, getting 1/5 of that from your salad dressing may not be the optimal choice.

One thing that also comes up with sugar content and balsamic vinegar is whether or not Balsamic Vinegar is Keto Friendly (click to read my article).

Balsamic vinegar only contains 4 grams of carbs per tablespoon. But most people doing keto limit their daily carbs to no more than 50. But there are some tricks to allow you to sneak in a little balsamic, so check out my post to see those!

Is there alcohol in balsamic vinegar?

While, of course, some balsamic vinegar gets mixed with wine vinegar the finished product does NOT contain alcohol in any noticeable amount.

Strict laws would also prohibit the sale of any food item containing alcohol to be sold unregulated the way beer, wine, and liquor are sold.

You might remember a nationwide shortage of kombucha about a decade ago after it was discovered that some brands had been fermented too long and the alcohol content had gotten too high.

Many grocery stores were forced to destroy hundreds of bottles in the aftermath to avoid the legal complications of selling an unregulated alcoholic product.

Traditional balsamic vinegar doesn’t even start with wine, nor is it fermented, so it never has alcohol in the first place.

If you are in recovery from alcohol addiction however, it may make sense for you to steer clear of any wine vinegar. Unfortunately, that includes many cheaper brands of balsamic vinegar.

How long will balsamic vinegar last?

Like a lot of quality foods, heat, sun, and putting the cap back on tightly all play a role in how long balsamic vinegar lasts.

It may also seem like an unusual question since inexpensive balsamic vinegar has already “turned”. In reality, it won’t ever go “bad” to the degree where it could be harmful to health, but its flavor can change to be less tasty.

So plan to use up your bottle within 3 years for the best flavor results.

Since traditional balsamic vinegar was never fermented, it is essentially just aged cooked grape juice. So, I would certainly want to use that up within a year. But once you taste “real” balsamic vinegar, you’ll probably use it a whole lot faster than that!

What are the best brands of balsamic vinegar?

Best, of course, is a very subjective term.

But as we’ve explored in this ultimate guide to balsamic vinegar, there are MANY different types of balsamic vinegar and that’s not even getting into things like organic balsamic vinegar.

Certainly, the best-known brand of inexpensive balsamic vinegar is Monari Federzoni which undoubtedly appears on the shelves of every grocery store in America. But is it the best in that price range?

Let’s explore the best balsamic vinegar in 3 categories: Inexpensive (under $10 bucks), Mid-range (under $40), and tradizionale.

BEST BALSAMIC VINEGAR UNDER $10 – Colavita Aged Balsamic Vinegar

Again, we’re talking under $10, so really there isn’t a ton of difference in flavor between brands. Most will be fairly tart and probably heavily mixed with red wine vinegar and caramel coloring.

I like this one because it’s aged for 3 years rather than the 2 months many other cheap ones are aged. Like any quality low-priced balsamic vinegar, it does contain the IGP label. I also like that this one is a minimum of 55% grape must which is a tad higher than many in this price range.

The black glass bottle is quite nice too.

Click here to check current prices on Amazon. Free shipping and great reviews.

BEST BALSAMIC VINEGAR UNDER $40 – Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar

I still recall selling this vinegar at Whole Foods shortly after it’s introduction in the late 90s. It is the product of Italian chef Massimo Botturam who has a restaurant in Modena that has 3 Michelin stars, so clearly this guy KNOWS good quality food.  The vinegar is outstanding and would make a great addition to your pantry.

Click here to check current prices on Amazon. Free shipping and hundreds of great reviews.

BEST TRADIZIONALE BALSAMICO – Rossi Barattini Extravecchio

From a family that has been producing tradizionale balsamico in Modena for 250 years. Like all tradizionale balsamic vinegar, this is a genuine DOP product and received top scores from the master tasters who approved it to be bottled.

Aged for 25 years. Currently just under $100 on Amazon plus a small shipping charge. Stock levels vary since this is not a mass produced product, so it may not always be available or always at this low price for an outstanding tradizionale balsamico.

Click here to check current prices on Amazon. Low shipping and almost 50 outstanding reviews.

Did I cover everything you wanted to know about balsamic vinegar?

In this article, which I intended to be the ultimate guide to balsamic vinegar, we reviewed:

  • How balsamic vinegar is made
  • The often confusing manner in which balsamic vinegar is labeled
  • Some of the most common certifications, stamps, and labels you’ll see on bottles 

and much more.

We also reviewed the strict standards of traditional balsamic vinegar and why one bottle might cost $4.00 and another $150.

Lastly, we also explored some of the best brands at different price levels. That way you can make the right choice for your taste buds and your wallet.

Do you have a favorite balsamic vinegar?

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

Photo credits which require attribution:

Modena 013 by Udo Schröter is licensed under CC2.0