What Is Balsamic Vinegar and Does It Go Bad?

What is balsamic vinegar? Find out what sets balsamic vinegar apart from red wine vinegar and distilled vinegar. 

My roommate and I have a giant jug of white vinegar under our sink, mostly used for cleaning. However our balsamic vinegar is kept on an altar next to an eternally burning candle. Because that’s where it belongs! But is what we are worshiping real authentic balsamic? I must know! Here’s a balsamic vinegar FAQ so you, too, may know the truth about balsamic vinegar. 

What is balsamic vinegar?

Balsamic vinegar is an aromatic, dark brown vinegar that is used in many recipes and salad dressings. Real balsamic vinegar comes exclusively from the city of Modena, Italy in the province Emilia-Romanga. The product is so intrinsically linked to that area that it’s labeled with the EU’s protected designation of origin (PDO).

Does that mean that every bottle of balsamic at your local grocery store comes from Modena? Not exactly. It’s nearly impossible for one region to produce all the world’s balsamic and still keep the price down. That’s why there is a second classification called PGI: protected geographical indication.

If you look at a bottle of balsamic and it says “Of Modena,” that will usually mean it’s the PGI version. This balsamic vinegar is made with different production and ingredient standards than the PDO version.

What is balsamic vinegar made from?

Let’s start with the PDO version of balsamic vinegar. While the word “balsamic” may bring to mind balsam resin, balsamic vinegar is actually made from grapes. Specifically, it is made from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes grown in Modena. If it’s made from anything else, it cannot bear the PDO label.

PGI balsamic is far more lax in its requirements. There’s a wider range of grapes that can be used and they don’t have to be grown in Modena, just processed there. It can also include other added ingredients used to mimic the taste of the PDO, such as wine vinegar, coloring, and sweeteners.

How is balsamic vinegar made?

PDO balsamic starts with grape must; that’s all the juice, stems, seeds, and skin of the grapes mushed together and left to ferment. The must is then left to age for a minimum of 12 years in a series of different wooden barrels. 

PGI balsamic takes far less time. The must ferments for just three months and is mixed with other wine vinegars and artificial sweeteners. This version tends to be more acidic than PDO because of the added vinegar.

What does balsamic vinegar taste like?

I am sad to say that I have not tasted the “true” balsamic, but I still think the PGI stuff is pretty good. It has a strong, powerful flavor that is both acidic and sweet with hints of fruit from the grapes.

Apparently, the PDO version is far sweeter naturally and also has woody notes from the barrels in which it is aged. I’d kill for woody notes! I mean, could you imagine a salt and vinegar chip made from traditional PDO balsamic vinegar? It sounds heavenly.

Does balsamic vinegar expire?

The acidity in balsamic vinegar helps to kill most bacteria, so a bottle can last for upwards of five years. Good news if you get your hands on the PDO stuff, since you’ll want to savor it. 

Should you refrigerate balsamic vinegar?

Nope, just keep it on the altar where it belongs.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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  • I MUST try the PDO balsamic.