By Bruno Cumar, Wine Professional  

Bruno is a division manager with Maddalena Brands wines and as a trained wine professional has deep knowledge about wines; he is a passionate cook and understands combining food wine and condiments. He hails from Northern Italy and shares the history and uses of Balsamic vinegars with our readers.




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Balsamic Vinegar: It is not made from wine; it is made directly from grape pressings before fermentation!

So . . . What is Balsamic vinegar? balsamic 3

Before it was introduced to the American market over 30 years ago, balsamic vinegar was known only to the few that traveled through the Emilia-Romagna region, and specifically in the cities of Modena or Reggio Emilia and vicinities. Balsamic vinegar’s roots go back to antiquity, as far back as 900 years ago, vintners in the Emilia-Romagna region were making balsamic vinegar which was taken as a tonic and bestowed as a highly prized gifts to the very important people.

Today we can find balsamic vinegars in an mesmerizing variety of shapes, sizes, prices, and claims of vintage. Because there are no U.S. standards of identity for balsamic vinegar, both the imported and domestically produced ones vary widely in their approximation of the real thing. Balsamic is now the best-selling vinegar in America, accounting for 45 percent of all supermarket vinegar sales.

Although it is considered a wine vinegar, it is not a wine vinegar at all. It is not made from wine, but from grape pressings that have never been permitted to ferment into wine.

A Tale of Two Vinegars

It turns out there are two kinds of balsamic vinegar, and they’re made by entirely different processes. The traditional technique takes a minimum of 12 years; the modern industrial method as little as a few hours. The centuries-old traditional way begins with late-harvest grapes (usually white Trebbiano). The sweet, raisiny juice, skin, and seeds, called grape must, is boiled in open vats until reduced to about half its original volume. This concentrated must is added to the largest of a battery of wooden barrels, which are kept in uninsulated attics in this region where the summers are hot and the winters frosty.



balsamic 2 (1)




The battery comprises barrels of different woods—including oak, cherry, juniper, and mulberry—and sizes. The barrels aren’t sealed; they have cloth-covered openings on top to allow evaporation. Each year, before the vinegar maker adds the new must to the largest barrel, he transfers some of its ever-more concentrated contents to the next largest, and so on down the line, before finally removing a liter or two of the oldest vinegar from the smallest barrel. This is traditional balsamic vinegar.

What’s more, all this can only happen in two provinces of Emilia-Romagna: Modena and Reggio Emilia, an area designated as a government-protected  Denomination of Origin, or DOP. Denominazione di Origine Protetta.   Each province has its own consortium of experts who approve the balsamicbalsamic 3 (1)

before sealing it in its official 3-ounce bottle (an inverted tulip shape for Reggio Emilia; a ball with a neck for Modena).


Tulip Bottle

Tulip Bottle






If you want a guarantee that you’re getting true balsamic vinegar, look for the word tradizionale and these distinctive bottles, and be prepared to pay dearly.

Not everything labeled balsamic vinegar is the real thing

Condimento balsamic vinegar made in the traditional method offers the best value. Producers who either live outside Modena and Reggio Emilia or who have decided to release their products without consortium approval make the second category of balsamic vinegar. Such products are often grouped under the name condimento balsamico but may bear other names such as salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto. These vinegars may be produced and aged according to the identical standards of a tradizionale outside the zone or released prior to twelve years and so do not qualify. Prices for these vinegars can be good and are the best value for the savvy consumer. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee on the bottle, but some makers of tradizionale also release condimento-grade balsamic vinegar.


In contrast to tradizionale is Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which is essentially an imitation of tradizionale. It may or may not undergo two complete fermentations, may or may not be aged in wood, and doesn’t undergo lengthy aging. Often, it’s a concoction of concentrated grape juice mixed with strong vinegar and caramel coloring. Most balsamic vinegars available in America fall into this category. The packaging, which frequently includes fancy bottle shapes, sealing wax, and claims of age, often promises more than it delivers. In fairness, not all are bad, but the best way to judge is by tasting.


Balsamic vinegar in the kitchen

Less than 3,000 gallons of genuine balsamico are released each year. It is so highly prized that it is considered disgraceful to cook with it. balsamic 1 (1)Rather, connoisseurs profess that genuine balsamico should be enjoyed in its virgin form, untouched by heat, much like a fine aged whiskey. As little as a half teaspoon of this expensive aged vinegar is enough to give flavor to a vinaigrette dressing.

Don’t waste your money on pricey traditional balsamic vinegar if you’re going to cook with it.

Here are some ways to try it.

Whisk young balsamic vinegar with shallots, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss the vinaigrette with a salad of frisée, arugula, radicchio, dandelion greens, crisped pancetta, and toasted walnuts; top with thin shards of aged Parmigiano.

Spoon old balsamic vinegar over pears baked in simple syrup and accompanied by a dollop of fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese.

Drizzle a teaspoon of extra-old balsamico over aged beef tenderloin that has been seasoned with salt and pepper and seared in a cast-iron skillet.

Drizzle middle-aged balsamic vinegar over risotto made with leeks, white wine, turkey stock, and Parmigiano, just before serving.

Middle-aged balsamic vinegar is a more viscous vinegar, and this medium-bodied vinegar is used to add finesse to sauces and braises at the end of cooking, to give dimension to risotti and pasta dishes, and to enhance mayonnaise and other sauces.

Very old vinegar is called extra-vecchio. It possesses flavors, texture, and complexity that only very long aging can confer. It would be a waste to mix very old balsamic vinegar with other ingredients or to pair it with highly spiced foods or complicated flavors. Its flavorful perfume is best released on warm or at least room-temperature foods. It stands best alone and reveals its full potential used sparingly on unadorned prime cuts of beef, fish, poultry, or veal. It’s delicious on sautéed liver — foie gras and old balsamico is a glorious combination.  Wild game is particularly well suited to a few drops of old balsamic vinegar — loin of fresh venison, pigeon roasted pink. So is wild duck, as well as choice cuts of fish such as tuna, halibut, or sole. Certain fruits in their prime of ripeness deserve balsamic vinegar’s gift — pears, wild strawberries, and peaches are exquisite, as are mild, creamy cheeses such as fresh ricotta.

When using balsamic vinegar, do not use aluminum pots or containers. Use non-reactive containers.


Balsamic vinegars are not recommended for pickling or herb infusion purposes.



Heat sweetens balsamic vinegar and boils out acidity. If you want to mellow out the flavor, heat it. If not, use it without heat or add at the very end of the cooking process.


If you must, substitute sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar for balsamico. It won’t be the same, but it will give you a hint on how good it could be if you used balsamic vinegar.




One comment

  1. Cyndi Melendez /

    I was so excited to have a dressing I can make that has flavor. I’m reactive to corn and corn dirivites. I usually get unsaturated feeling. I thought this was real balsamic
    vinager. What would you recommend that is not so expensive?

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