So you get to the grocery store, make your way to the oil & vinegar aisle, and pause in front of a towering wall of brown bottles. The options are endless! Balsamic vinegar in all different shapes, sizes and flavors. How do you possibly choose? Before settling for the cheapest price or the fanciest bottle, here are some helpful tips so you can be confident that you are getting the best value.
1. Look for the P.G.I (or I.G.P) Logo
The yellow and blue Protected Geographic Indication seal is administered by the European Union. It ensures that the Balsamic Vinegar is produced and matured only in the Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia according to rigorous regulations that protect quality and authenticity. This seal allows the label to read “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”or “Aceto Balsamico di Modena I.G.P.”, which sets it apart from balsamic that is made in other places, including the United States. More info can be found in our IGP vs DOP blog post.
2. Check the Ingredients
Authentic Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is limited to three ingredients. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena must contain: cooked or concentrated grape must, wine vinegar; “Contains sulfites”. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena might contain: caramel coloring. Simple as that!
3. Determine Your Intended Use
Why are you buying the balsamic? What type of dish will you be using it for? These are important questions to ask, because the intended use of the balsamic will indicate which quality to buy. Here is a quick guide:
4. Understand the Label
The terms, signs and symbols on Balsamic Vinegar labels can sometimes seem like another language. Look for these key words when browsing the shelf:
“Grape Must”: This is the sweet honey-like substance that results from crushing vine-ripened grapes. It is often referred to as grape “juice”, but really all parts of the grape are included—skin, flesh and seeds. The grape must is what gives balsamic vinegar its sweet fruity flavor, so the more grape must, the sweeter the product. If grape must is low but the product is sweet, check for added sugar!
“Contains Sulfites”: Sulfites are naturally occurring in most vinegar and are totally safe in moderate concentrations. Vinegar manufacturers are required to ID them on the label, because some folks (<1% of the population) have a sulfite intolerance. If the ingredients say “contains sulfites” or “naturally occurring sulfites”, then no need to worry. If sulfites are added, take a hard pass.
“Caramel Free”: Caramel is a natural byproduct of cooking sugar. Vinegar makers add caramel color to keep the beautiful brown consistent across all batches. There is mixed info floating around about the safety of consuming caramel, so many manufactures are omitting it when possible.
“High Density”: The density of the vinegar is determined by the content of grape must, so you can usually assume: the higher the density, the higher the grape must content, and the higher the quality.
“Stars, Leaves, Metals, etc…”: These are all just fancy symbols that indicate the quality of vinegar at hand. Use the guide above to determine which to look for.
“Ecogruppo”: despite some rumors, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena can also be certified organic. The main certifying body in Italy is “Ecogruppo”, which is accredited by the USDA. Just expect a slightly higher price tag.
5. Avoid These Words and Terms
Assuming you are in the market for real, authentic Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, products containing the following terms should raise a red flag:
“Balsamic Vinegar” without “of Modena”
In the ingredients list: gums, thickeners, added sulfites, added sugars, water, distilled vinegar
6. Know Your Other Options
While authentic Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is always a great option, don’t be afraid to try other non-imitation products as well. Glazes, flavored condiments, and white “balsamic” for instance are great for creating flavorful dishes and can sometimes be a little easier on the wallet. Here is a quick overview of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena alternatives (COMING SOON!).