Balsamic Vinegar – How to Spend Less & Get More…

Trying to choose from the army of balsamic vinegars now available in supermarkets can be a confusing experience – but can you get a better quality product without breaking the bank?

During my early childhood, my parents try to disguise the fact that I was a generally unpleasant child with the fashionable new-age diagnosis of an ‘e-numbers allergy’.  All of the brightly coloured psychadelic delights that peppered my friends lives were gathered up and disposed of, and I was put on a restricted diet that would make a puritan seem indulgent.

Given that I grew up in the 1980s, a time when food manufactures were enthusiastically heaping mountains of exotically named chemicals into anything that stayed still long enough, this resulted in my mother having to prepare almost every item of food herself and maintain close relationships with all health food shop owners in a 30 mile radius.

Aside from the shopping and cooking requirements, my diet was an administrative nightmare  – elaborate packed lunches in advance of any trips, pre-emptive phone calls were made to bewildered parents hosting birthday parties, and my mother would painstakingly explain at great length to blank faced waitresses that any remotely unnatural ingredient would cause me to turn scarlet and ascend the curtains at speed.  The real low point was when a stony faced B&B owner in North Wales took my colour allergy a little too literally and served me a pallid plate of cod and cauliflower…

But despite my ambitions to make up for such a chemically deprived youth, my initial adulthood enthusiasm for unnaturally coloured goodies of all kinds gradually dimmed, and I developed a snooty disdain for the few foods that still contain artificial colourants today.  I will obsessively study the ingredient lists of even the most innocuous products, and while the usual suspects have mostly been brought into line (think smarties and party rings – the bain of any e-number restricted birthday party attending 7-yr old), those that remain are an somewhat unexpected.

Gherkins with ‘Tartrazine’ yellow food colouring? Horseradish sauce with ‘Titanium Dioxide’ (also in paint and sunscreen in case you’re running low)? But one of the real surprises is an ingredient that most of us have in our store cupboard, and would consider a traditional and natural product.

Balsamic vinegar is a relative newcomer as a staple larder ingredient – helped along in no small part by the liberal glugs dolled out by Jamie Oliver over anything from roasted tomatoes to barbecue sauce, it now has an ever growing section of the supermarket dedicated to it, and enjoys a place in cupboards across the land.  It has gone beyond being a simple alternative vinegar in salad dressings, and many of us will now happily bring it out to enliven summer strawberries or as a foil to garlic and rosemary in lamb marinades.

But despite the history and traditional place in Italian cuisine of ‘Aceto Balsamico’, the version we are most likely to be using is a recently developed commercially produced version which is a far cry from the aged artisan product produced for centuries in Reggio Emilia and Modena.  The massive increase in demand for balsamic vinegar through the 1980s and 90s led to development of products that could be produced quickly and at low cost, and this is reflected in the standard of many of the vinegars sold today – many (in fact the majority) are no more than wine vinegar with sulphur caramel colouring (that’s right, the same colouring that goes into Coca Cola).

So should we all go out and demand ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’, the DOP term guaranteeing the original product, aged to a minimum of 12 years?  Er, not so fast.  The time and effort required to produce such an ingredient commands a hefty price tag – offers 100ml of 12 year old Balsamico Tradizionale for £77.25, the same amount of a 25 yr old is almost double that.  This is an ingredient to be dripped, not glugged!

But there’s no need to resign ourselves to buying poor quality imitations of the real thing.  A little bit of label reading can make a big difference – and contrary to what you’d expect, spending more does not always guarantee better quality.

Andy Appleton, head chef at Fifteen Cornwall, is a man who knows about balsamic vinegar.  It’s an ingredient central to the simple Italian inspired food they serve up every day.

“We don’t used the traditional product as it’s too expensive, but we still use an aged balsamic made in Modena that retails at around £25 for 250ml.  We’ll use the high end balsamic for finishing dishes with a small amount, and use a cheaper product for cooking dishes like our slow roasted pork.  We apply the same principles to balsamic vinegar that we do to the various grades of olive oil we use.”

And it looks like it’s not just the UK that suffers from poor quality balsamic pretenders.  Even in Italy, there are expensive, elaborately packaged products that are nothing more than the usual wine vinegar/caramel/sugar mix.  So how do you choose the best one for your budget? Here’s how.

1. There are now numerous accreditation labels that give an idea of the quality of commercially produced balsamic vinegars. The ‘vine leaves’ system runs from 1 to 4 leaves, with 1 leaf recommended for everyday use and 4 leaves reserved for dripping over desserts and use in small quantities. gives a great breakdown of the rating system and how to use each type.

balsamic vinegar leaves

2. The Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) symbol gives assurance that the balsamic vinegar has been produced in the original regions of Italy responsible for traditional balsamic vinegar, namely Modena and Reggio Emilia:

 3. The Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Di Modena (CABM) controls the production of both traditional and commerical products (and were responsible for applying for the PGI status). I can recommend their website – it looks like it was made by a graffiti enthusiast… The label is often around the neck of the bottle:

4. Arguably more important than the above features, use your eyes.  Even with all of the above symbols and labels, you will still find that some balsamic vinegars contain artificial caramel colouring – even organic products can contain added sugar and natural caramel colouring, so check the ingredients carefully. And you may also find great vinegars without these accreditations – Belazu make a great balsamic vinegar used in many professional kitchens.  Aged balsamic vinegars will be thicker than the non-aged variety, so if you’re buying a more expensive vinegar, swill it around the bottle to check the thickness.

5. Most importantly of all – when you get it home, taste it.  If you like it, stick to it, if not, choose a different one next time.  

Using this guide you’ll find that you can get decent quality balsamic vinegar without spending an arm and a leg.  My every day balsamic is a colour and sugar free, 2 vine leaf, PGI, CABM labelled balsamic that costs only 99p for 250ml from a major UK supermarket.

So, when you have finally chosen your vinegar, what do you do with it?  Let’s give the final word to Andy Appleton: “Keep it simple, use it on a rocket salad,  the balsamic will cut through the peppery rocket.  But don’t use olive oil and balsamic vinegar together – you’ve got two quality ingredients that will stand out much better on their own.”


P.S. Given that my mother may read this post, at this point I need to say that it is only now I can appreciate how lucky I was to enjoy freshly made blackcurrant jelly, crisp golden wiener schnitzel, salads fresh from the garden and home made pizzas.  But not stewed apple…  

© Dan Main, 2011