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Supermarket Balsamic Vinegar
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.
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What You Need To Know
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...
Everything We Tested
Served plain, this balsamic vinegar tasted of dried fruit like figs, raisins, and prunes. Some of these nuances disappeared once it was reduced or whisked into vinaigrette, but it still tasted pleasantly sweet. While its texture was fairly thin, its flavor earned high marks in the dressing and the glaze.
Tasters praised the consistency of this vinegar, which was viscous but not too thick to coat greens or asparagus. It had a bright acidity and “nice fruit flavor” that made for a sweet glaze and boasted hints of blueberries and wine when served plain.
Although some tasters noted harshness in this vinegar when sampling it plain, this was tempered to a “nice bite” in vinaigrette and glaze. In those applications, a fruity sweetness came to the forefront. As one taster said, “It’s perfectly balanced.”
Tasters approved of the full and “balanced” flavors of this balsamic. Plain, it tasted of cooked fruit; in vinaigrette and glaze, it showcased flavors of plum, honey, and molasses. Although it was a little thin in body even when reduced, its rich flavor and pleasant acidity more than made up for it.
This vinegar consistently scored in the middle of the lineup. Although it was both sweet and acidic, it lacked complexity and was deemed “not outstanding,” even a bit “boring.” It showed to its best advantage in the vinaigrette, where its sweet start and pleasantly bright finish made it a crowd-pleaser.
The only aged product in our lineup, this vinegar was so viscous and thick when tasted plain that tasters compared it with port and dessert wine. Whisked in vinaigrette and reduced to a glaze, it became sticky and syrupy—appealing to some tasters, but overwhelming to others. Although the label does not list the ingredients, the company confirmed that it uses a mix of grape must and wine vinegar.
Recommended with reservations
Though this vinegar earned some favorable reviews, we still have reservations. Namely: It was too sharp and “puckery” when tasted plain and maintained its harshness even when reduced to a glaze. What we did like: a consistency that was pleasantly thick in vinaigrette and became “syrupy” when reduced.
At our plain tasting, the berry notes of this vinegar drew comparisons to candy, juice, and even Kool-Aid. Similar comments came up during the vinaigrette tasting: “like jelly candy.” It was also panned for being harsh and “astringent,” with “an assertive and unpleasant bite, like alcohol.” It mellowed to an acceptable level of fruitiness when reduced to a glaze. As for the consistency, it scored in the middle of the pack straight from the bottle and became “nice and thick” when reduced or whisked in vinaigrette.
This sample consistently fell to the bottom of our rankings. Although it lent acidic brightness to vinaigrette and glaze, it had a one-note flavor that bordered on “tannic,” and some tasters noticed a “harsh” aftertaste. It remained thin and mild-tasting even when reduced.
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