True balsamic vinegar is made in the Modena Region of Italy, and should state that on the bottle. Otherwise it is just an imitation - an artificially flavored vinegar.
There are three types of balsamic vinegars:
- Traditional Balsamic Vinegar - Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale DOP /PDO (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin)
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena - Aceto Balsamico di Modena, IGP/PGI (Protected Geographical Indication)
- Imitation commercial-grade balsamic vinegar
The Traditional version is the most expensive (ranging from $100/100ml) and is made with a 100% concentration of grape must (extract), it contains no additives of any kind, and is therefore gluten free. It must be aged for either 12 years or 25 years, and can be found at specialty Italian grocery stores, or online.
The inexpensive Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is what you’ll find at your local grocery store, although among brands you will find a wide range in prices, due to number of factors.
» Aging - the best will be aged a minimum of least 2 years, while others will not be aged at all.
» Concentration - some will contain only 20% grape must, with the remaining volume made up of another wine vinegar.
» Additives - coloring, caramel, guar gum, or corn flour is usually added to the least expensive brands of balsamic vinegar to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness that is naturally created from the lengthly aging process of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. It is these colorings and caramel flavorings in the lowest quality of balsamic vinegars which may or may not contain gluten, so always be sure to check the label.
The commercial-grade balsamic vinegar are not made from grapes at all, and will be found at all grocery stores. They are made from a mixture of wine vinegar, sugar, water, preservatives, caramel, and flavorings - and will definitely not have been made in Italy. Gluten may or may not be present in these colorings and flavorings, so be sure to check the label. There are no standards or controls in making this grade of balsamic vinegar, which is why it is by far the cheapest.
So what should you buy?
For the little balsamic that you will use, I think spend a bit of money to get one that is at least authentic. Traditional balsamic is most likely out of your price range, especially for a condiment, so when choosing one of the less expensive Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, buy the best you can afford (and make sure 'Product of Italy' is clearly stated on the bottle). This is definitely a case of where the more money you spend, the better quality product you will get.
Crema di Balsico is balsamic vinegar that has been reduced until it is thick and syrupy. It is used as a finishing sauce to drizzle over dishes like pizza, appetizers and even strawberries or ice cream. Save yourself some money (and potential gluten contamination if it was made from uncontrolled sources/processes), and make your own: In a small non-reactive saucepan, boil 1 cup of balsamic vinegar until it is reduced to 1/4 cup and becomes thick and syrupy. It will keep indefinitely stored in a sealed jar in the fridge.
What about other vinegars?
Due to the boiling, vaporization and condensation process (distillation) there is no possibility for gluten or to end up in the final product. Therefore pure unadulterated distilled vinegar is safe for gluten sensitive people to drink (even if it’s made from wheat – since any gluten that did pass through the distillation process is well below the 20-parts-per-million threshold limits as set by international standards*).
Type of Vinegar
|Made From||Always Safe||Good Quality Should Be Safe||Always Check the Label||Never Safe|
|Crema di Balsico||Grapes||x||x|
|Rice Vinegar||Rice (can contain barley malt||x|
|White Distilled Vinegar||Corn (usually)||x|
|White or Golden Balsamic Vinegar||Grapes||x||x|
|Wine Vinegars (Red, Sherry, White, Champagne)||Grapes||x|
|1 For example Heinz Tarragon Vinegar is made with flavoring that contains barley (added after the distillation process)|
If you can't find gluten free flavored vinegar, try making your own. Use a single herb, or a combination of fresh herbs for a more complex flavor: Fill a sterilzed bottle 2/3 full with red or white wine vinegar. Add fresh herbs that have been washed and thoruoughly dried (rosemary, parsley, sage, basil, etc), enough to fill half the bottle. You can add fresh cloves of garlic - just be aware that the garlic may or may not discolor, although it has not gone bad. Top up with more vinegar and seal. Stored in a cool, dark place, it will keep for several months.
Other FAQs about balsamic vinegar
- What is white or golden balsamic vinegar? It has the same ingredients as its darker version, however it gets its (lack of) color due to a low pressure cooking method. Best used in dishes where you want the flavor but not the dark coloring regular balsamic would impart.
- What is the cloudy substance at the bottom of the bottle? This harmless mass is called “mother of vinegar” and occurs naturally over time. It comes from the breakdown of cellulose, which is found in the fiber of the fruit (ie. apples or grapes) it was pressed from. If desired, you can use a coffee filter or cheesecloth to filter it out.
- If balsamic vinegar is made from grapes, does that mean it was made from wine? No. Since the grape must/juice is cooked before it ferments, it never becomes wine.
*Note: There are some individuals who can be highly sensitive to gluten, reacting even in concentrations within the ‘safe’ limits of less than 20ppm. In these cases, avoid any distilled vinegars that are made from any gluten based grains.