What is Balsamic vinegar and how is it made?

Balsamic vinegar is a highly concentrated, dark-coloured and flavoursome vinegar, originally concocted in Italy. Aceto balsamico is a delicious key ingredient in regional Italian cuisine, being used in savoury and sweet dishes and occasionally even consumed as a post-meal digestif.

It’s popular around the world for its rich, complex flavour, which has led the European Union to designate tradizionale Modena and Reggio Emilia balsamic vinegar under its prestigious heritage-preservation program, the Protected Designation of Origin scheme.

At Cole & Mason, we’re big fans of balsamic vinegar — so we’ve put together this handy guide.

Why is it called balsamic vinegar?

white plate with someone pouring balsamic vinegar on it

Contrary to general opinion, balsamic vinegar actually contains no balsam whatsoever — at least, not in the sense that it contains wood or resin. 

Until recent times and the advent of scientific medicine, vinegar was used in Europe as a common working man’s drink, a health food and a tonic. Posca was an ancient Roman soldiers’ drink, made by mixing diluted wine vinegar with herbs and spices. At that time, water often contained harmful germs, drunkenness was forbidden for legionaries, and soldiers would march across Europe on foot eating little in the way of fruit and veg. Posca was a (very popular!) solution — slightly alcoholic, part-medicine, part-vitamin supplement and part-disinfectant. 

This practice persisted through the centuries. In Italy, high-quality wine vinegar came to be regarded as a “balsamico” — a restorative or curative substance. Hence “balsamic” vinegar!

What is balsamic vinegar made from?

red grapes being collected at a vineyard to show what balsamic vinegar is made from

Balsamic vinegar is traditionally made from wine grape must. That’s the freshly-pressed juice of grapes, with most of the skin, seeds and woody bits filtered out. The must is simmered until it approaches a sugar content of 30%, before being decanted into large barrels made from woods like oak, chestnut, juniper and ash. 

Remarkably, traditional balsamic vinegar is then aged for twelve or more years as a matter of course, with extravecchio (extra old) vinegar being aged for either 18 or 25 years. This ageing process produces the complex acidic compounds that give it its unique flavour.

However, the majority of balsamic vinegar we consume isn’t made by these rustic, traditional methods. Usually the manufacture of balsamic is an industrial operation, using a sped-up process that uses more than just must and involves ageing for only between 3 and 24 months. 

It’s not all bad! A lot of the balsamic products that come into the UK carry the Modena PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) label, meaning they have at least been manufactured in the traditional vinegar-producing region.

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

Balsamic vinegar is traditionally made solely by slow-fermenting fresh grape must. This gives it its sweet-sour taste. Normal “white” or malt vinegar, on the other hand, is made nowadays by the industrial processing of grain-produced ethanol into acetic acid, usually quickly and with minimal frills. This makes it rather a single-trick ingredient, useful for adding a touch of acidity or for drizzling on chips, for example. 

This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other “interesting” vinegars, like apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar. But these usually lack the rich flavour and heritage of balsamic!

How to use balsamic vinegar

a plate of three figs with balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is a powerfully acidic ingredient, and therefore one we have to be careful with. Adding too much to any dish can completely overwhelm any subtler flavours. However, used sparingly, it can greatly enhance all kinds of food.

In Italy, balsamic is traditionally eaten with Italian cheese and sausage, as well as with fresh bread dipped into olive oil. It’s also drizzled onto fish, eggs and steak, as well as vanilla gelato!

Closer to home, you might enjoy balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, seafood dishes, spooned into stews and sauces, or with simple pasta and rice dishes. Balsamic also serves well to add colour and flavour to curries and noodle stir fries where other traditional regional ingredients might not be available. 

Added to a bolognese with a splash of red wine, balsamic adds complexity and complements the beef’s natural flavour. Balsamic can also be used in marinades.

What can I use instead of balsamic vinegar?

If you don’t have balsamic vinegar to hand, red or white wine vinegar is a good temporary stand-in. Red or white wine is also useful in sauces that might have otherwise been spruced up with balsamic. You might also use a drop of ordinary vinegar combined with a tot of beef stock or soy sauce, which will also imitate the darkening effect balsamic has on sauces.

How many calories are in balsamic vinegar?

There are thirteen calories (kcal) in a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. This comes from the natural sugars, acidic and alcohol-like compounds that are present in the vinegar. Adding balsamic to a meal or sprinkling it over your food is very unlikely to have a significant effect on the number of calories you consume.

More broadly, authentic balsamic vinegar is thought to have a variety of health benefits, not least in Italy! Although many of these are unverified or only slightly supported by studies, it can’t hurt to try, right?

What should I look for when buying balsamic vinegar?

Bottle of real DOP balsamic vinegar from Modena

Balsamic vinegar as a product falls under the Protected Designation of Origin scheme, administered by the European Union. This makes it easier to spot the genuine article where it does appear. Just two regional consortia produce “true” aceto balsamico that’s been aged for 12 years or more: Modena and Reggio Emilia. 

Products from these areas are labelled either “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO” or “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia PDO”. They may also be labelled in Italian. This is the best balsamic vinegar in the world, renowned for its superior taste — so keep your eyes peeled.

Generally, however, authentic, traditionally-prepared aceto balsamico is quite expensive. Expect to pay a minimum of £20 for a small bottle. If you do splash out, use it very sparingly; it’s often best to keep for special occasions and to be sampled on its own, either drizzled over some gelato or with some bread and olive oil. 

Products labelled Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI come at a significant step down in price, but are a good imitation of the genuine article — they’re brewed in the same regions. These will usually be the best products on offer in your local supermarket, for example.

Finally, there are a host of products labelled as plain old “balsamic vinegar” — these can vary wildly in quality and provenance, but are also the cheapest. 

Remember — whichever vinegar you buy, you can always add a touch of romance and rustique to your balsamic with an artisanal pourer

And if you want to find out more about tradizionale vinegar production, here’s a charming video guide.

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