How the real thing is made
Authentic balsamic vinegar is made from grapes harvested in the Reggio Emilia or Modena regions of Italy. The grapes are harvested and pressed to create what is known as grape must. The grape must is then cooked the same day to reduce the alcohol and water content of the must which effectively makes it sweeter.
The must is then placed into large wood barrels and transferred to barrels of decreasing size over time in the attic of the vinegar house. The attic allows the balsamic vinegar to be subjected to the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer to age the vinegar naturally. The vinegar gains acidy and sweetness as the water content of the balsamic vinegar continues to evaporate over years.
The barrels are composed of different woods to season the vinegars in various ways. Each wood has a unique effect on the color and flavor of the balsamic vinegar aged within it.
This process is what gives the balsamic vinegar an incredible depth of flavor. The flavors brought out by the aging process and introduced by the various woods is why “true” balsamic vinegar shines when tasted on a caprese salad, cheese, fruit, etc. compared to its industrialized alternatives.
How it has been industrialized
Much of what is available in the US is made quite differently. The industrialized version attempts to mimic authentic balsamic vinegar by adding sweet grape must to acidic wine vinegar. Although wine vinegar can sometimes be a useful tool for increasing the acidity of balsamic vinegar made using authentic methods, its use as the main ingredient is far from an equivalent substitute for the natural acetification process. This method of creating “balsamic vinegar” leads to a much cheaper product.
When producing the industrial version, the grapes may be harvested in the same regions on an mass-scale or simply imported to these regions and processed there. There are often other ingredients added to thicken the product to mimic the thickness of authentic balsamic vinegar. Many times additional sugar is added in an attempt to further balance out the strong acidity of the wine vinegar.
The difference in the end product
Authentic balsamic vinegar is much thicker than what you can find in the grocery store.
Authentic balsamic vinegar has a translucent amber hue when held up to a light.
The difference in taste is enormous.
I often say that the two should not share the same name. Industrial balsamic vinegar tends to be very sharp and its flavor is typically dominated by its acidity. There are instances where the industrial version can be flavored with raspberries, figs, or other fruits. However, these flavors almost always end up tasting artificially sweet.
Authentic balsamic vinegar has a sweetness and complexity in its flavor that truly cannot be replicated with industrialized methods. The sweetness does not taste artificial but is naturally present in a way that provides balances to the acidity. The taste is so smooth that one of my favorite ways to enjoy it is with a tasting spoon. The acidity is still present and acts in tandem with the other flavors to deliver the best experience.
The industrialized version of balsamic vinegar still has its place in instances where authentic balsamic vinegar does not make sense because its flavors would be lost during the cooking process or it is not affordable. Authentic balsamic vinegar should be used to enhance the flavor of a food after a food is already cooked.
This is due to the fact that much of what makes authentic balsamic vinegar special will be destroyed by heat when cooking. It is worth noting that there are a few exceptions where authentic balsamic vinegar does make noticeable differences if used while cooking.
When looking to enjoy with cheese, fruits, meats, vegetables, fish, and even ice cream, authentic balsamic vinegar cannot be compared to its industrialized counterpart. After trying the authentic version with these foods I can assure you that you will never consider going back to the alternative. Even if it means hiding a bottle of the “special stuff” away for yourself.