The Best Balsamic Vinegar, According to Our Test Kitchen
In the EatingWell Test Kitchen, we love balsamic vinegar—in vinaigrettes for our salads, of course, but also in marinades and dishes like this balsamic chicken and our many very popular balsamic roasted vegetable recipes.
"I use a lot of balsamic at home," says EatingWell magazine senior food editor Devon O'Brien. "My mom made balsamic vinaigrette for a tossed salad at dinnertime every single day, and I find myself reaching for the same in adulthood. Balsamic has such a deep flavor compared to other vinegars, a nice musk and a little sweetness. I use it in salads, of course, but also for pairing with cheese, drizzling on pizzas and even a little in some pasta dishes." She adds, "I also always have a balsamic glaze or reduction on hand for easy drizzling on fresh mozzarella and tomatoes or on top of cooked pizza." But how do you know the best balsamic vinegar to buy? It depends on a few factors, including how you plan to use it. Here's our advice on choosing, plus a few top picks to buy at the grocery store or online.
What should I look for in a balsamic vinegar?
When choosing a balsamic vinegar, one factor is what you'll be using it for. If it is going to be the star of the show—say, simply drizzled over vegetables or even fruit—you might want to spring for something a bit fancier, while if you are using it in a marinade, you can get away with something cheaper. When you are shopping for balsamic, pay attention to these three Cs.
Certification: "Balsamic from Italy has a certification to protect authenticity and quality—look for a DOC label," explains EatingWell's food editor, Jim Romanoff. In addition to the DOC certification, Romanoff looks for vinegars with one of these two regional labels: Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. Both use traditional barrel methods to make their vinegar.
Color: At the store, take a look at the color of the vinegar. "Often I look at color first, if possible. I want one that is rich and dark, not translucent like red-wine vinegar," says O'Brien.
Consistency: Romanoff notes that while a thick consistency can be a sign of a quality balsamic, it can also be a bit of a trick. "I used to look at the body to see that it was more syrupy than watery, like I'd enjoyed with better balsamics, but then I learned that lower-quality ones were artificially thickened all the time."
What is the best bargain balsamic for everyday use?
The good news is that you don't have to spend a bundle for good-quality balsamic. "Colavita and Alessi are my go-to inexpensive grocery store grabs," says O'Brien. Romanoff is also a fan of Colavita.
What about a splurge pick for drizzling on special dishes?
O'Brien likes Fini, while Romanoff likes vinegars made by Giuseppe Giusti of Modena. "They make several levels of balsamic all the way up to very expensive, very old vinegar," he says. "Plus, if you're a bargain shopper you can often find their vinegars at T.J. Maxx or Marshalls. I find a good deal makes it even more special."
What's the deal with white balsamic?
"White balsamic is basically the same as regular, but made with white-wine vinegar instead of red-wine vinegar," explains O'Brien. "It's great for dishes where you want that balsamic flavor but don't want to muddy the color of your food—think a salad with peaches, etc." Romanoff finds white balsamic to usually be sweeter and less complex. "I often use it as a sweetener along with other vinegars in a dressing or in a dish that I want to be sweet and tart but don't need the complexity of dark balsamic." Try white balsamic in recipes like this one for chicken cutlets with rhubarb sauce—in it we use white balsamic to get the sweet-tart complexity of balsamic without affecting the color of the dish. Colavita and Alessi are good picks for white balsamic too.
When should I use my fancy balsamic vs. my everyday balsamic?
"My philosophy is to use the best ingredient you can for anything you're making," says Romanoff. "A really amazing balsamic makes an amazing vinaigrette. If I'm cooking with balsamic and it's not going to be the primary flavor, I use my everyday balsamic. For dressings I usually use the fancier stuff, sparingly—after all, I can't live at T.J. Maxx."
And if you are going to splurge on a really fancy bottle of balsamic, save it for special occasions to drizzle on fresh fruit and even ice cream. "I keep an embarrassingly expensive, teeny-weeny bottle of balsamic in an antique jelly cupboard with the 'fancy' plates and glasses," says Romanoff. "In the spring and early summer when strawberries are at their best, I take the tastiest specimen I can find and anoint it with a few drops of the precious elixir from Modena. Then I try to forget the bottle is there for another year. I've had it for at least 15 years at this point."
Ready to make some salads? Check out our Olive Oil Buyer's Guide to complete that vinaigrette.