In recent years, Italy has created a new set of guidelines for mass-produced balsamic vinegar. We wanted to know if these new laws guarantee a better-quality product.
Published July 1, 2015. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: French-Inspired Comfort Food
The first thing to understand when you set out to buy balsamic vinegar at the grocery store is that it has little to do with the traditionally made, name-protected Italian artisanal product called aceto balsamico tradizionale. It’s not even made for the same purpose. The traditional stuff is a small-batch, long-aged product that bears a Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) seal indicating use of locally grown ingredients and adherence to strict guidelines. Costing as much as $250 for a tiny 3.4-ounce bottle, it’s meant to be drizzled sparingly over steak or strawberries—or even sipped. Masking its flavors in vinaigrette or burning them off in a cooked application would be a tragic mistake.
That’s where the supermarket stuff comes in. This inexpensive mass-produced product is designed for salad dressing or to make a sweet-tart reduction to drizzle over vegetables or grilled meats. While its flavor isn’t anywhere near as complex as traditional balsamic, it can still have a pleasing fruity bite, which makes it a staple in most American kitchens.
Since we last tasted supermarket balsamic vinegar in 2007, a new certification process for this product has been put in place. Vinegars that are produced in either Reggio Emilia or Modena (the only two provinces where traditional balsamic can be made) and follow certain other guidelines can call themselves “balsamic vinegar of Modena” and bear an Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or IGP, seal on their labels. Curious if this certification process would raise the standards and give us a better supermarket option at the same affordable price, we rounded up nine widely available balsamic vinegars of Modena with an IGP seal (including our former winner), all sold for no more than $15 a bottle, and conducted a series of blind taste tests. We sampled them plain, whisked into vinaigrette, and reduced to make a quick glaze that we served over asparagus.
Straight from the bottles, the vinegars ranged from nearly as thick as traditional balsamic to as watery and thin as distilled white vinegar. The plain tasting revealed a similarly wide array of flavors. The best versions tasted of caramelized sugar or roasted fruit and had a smooth, pleasant tang; others had a fake, candy-like sweetness or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, tasted harshly acidic. We were puzzled. How could all these products qualify under the exact same standards?
We did a little investigating and discovered that the guidelines governing the use of the seal are pretty loose. IGP laws do outline a list of approved ingredients—namely, that the vinegar begin with the must (the skin, seeds, and juice) from select nat...
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