Check your labels. 

By Kelly Vaughan
Updated December 09, 2019
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Whether you drizzle it on a classic Caprese salad, over ricotta and dried fig crostini, or whip up a light vinaigrette, a little bit of balsamic vinegar goes a long way. Before picking up any bottle on the shelf of your local grocery store, follow these tips to make sure that you’re getting a rich, high-quality balsamic vinegar. To know how to distinguish a bad balsamic vinegar from a bottle that’s truly special, we turned to Tim Bucciarelli and Julia Hallman from Formaggio Kitchen, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Italian food purveyor.

Tip #1: Read Your Labels

If the first ingredient in your bottle of balsamic vinegar is red wine vinegar, the product will actually be much more acidic and thinner than the sweeter vinegar we think of as balsamic. Instead, the first ingredient in a bottle of good balsamic vinegar should be cooked grape must. “Think of grape must as the first pressing of the grapes where you have the freshly pressed juice of the grapes mixed with the seeds, skins (and some stems). The solid matter is the pomace and after that's removed, you have the fresh grape juice (the must),” explains Bucciarelli.

Another ingredient that is a red flag? Caramel coloring, which Bucciarelli calls “an unnecessary ingredient used to mask inferior quality ingredients.”

Hallman explains that an Aceto Balsamico di Modena consisting of 78% red wine vinegar, 20% cooked grape must and 2% caramel coloring is “an example of a poor-quality vinegar that will be too acidic.”

Tip #2: Buy Regionally

For the best balsamic vinegar money can buy, Bucciarelli recommends Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. “These are the most controlled balsamic products and as a result, have a high degree of quality,” he says. Hallman adds that the only ingredient in Balsamic Tradizionale is cooked grape must. “These vinegars do not allow any other ingredients and require aging in traditional barrels for no less than 12 years,” she explains which means that you’re getting the sweetest, thickest balsamic possible.

However, you can buy a well-made Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP for between $14 - $25 per 250ml bottle ($60 - $80 per liter) that is perfect for everyday use, according to Bucciarelli.

Tip #3: Choose a Well-Aged Bottle

Like wine, age is generally associated with the quality of the product inside the bottle. The longer the product has aged, the more flavorful and complex it becomes. In the case of balsamic vinegar, the difference between a five-year-old bottle and a 25-year-old bottle is its flavor and viscosity. “As balsamic ages, it loses water content, which increases the viscosity of the liquid and concentrates the flavors of the cooked and fermented grape must and vinegars. Over time, the barrels contribute their own flavors to the balsamic,” says Bucciarelli.

Tip #4: Know Your Source

Both Bucciarelli and Hallman agree that one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting a quality product is to shop at a reputable independent retailer or purveyor. “Smaller producers tend to have higher quality standards and while they can be slightly more expensive, it is often worth it for the product that you get,” says Hallman.

Bucciarelli’s advice is simple: “Taste and learn.”