Balsamic vinegar pairs well with everything from salad dressings to pasta, poultry, cheese, and fruits, but it’s probably not something a home chef uses regularly. If you’ve found an old bottle collecting dust in your pantry and want to use it, you may wonder, “Does balsamic vinegar go bad?” The good news is, it can last ages, but it does have the potential to go bad if not cared for properly.
How Long Does Balsamic Vinegar Last?
Certain types of balsamic vinegar purchased from specialty food stores have already been aged more than 100 years, meaning this is a product with one of the longest shelf-lives possible. It’s actually made from grapes, similar to wine vinegars, but the difference is that the juice is not fermented. For this reason, you’ll find newer balsamic vinegars that are only a few years old, as well as more traditional varieties that have been aged for 12 years or more, and well-aged varieties which don’t hit store shelves until they’re 25 or more years old.
During the aging process, the vinegar is moved into a smaller cask each year, though a cask is never fully emptied, similar to how sweet wines and sherries are handled. Because of this, many vinegar makers cannot provide an exact vintage, and may use terms like affinato, vecchio, or extra vecchio to denote a grade or approximate age. It’s typically up to a panel of judges to determine this. As balsamic vinegar darkens and becomes more viscous as it ages, these traits and flavor are used to determine the grade.
That said, aging in a wooden barrel is not the same thing as aging in a bottle at home, and how well it handles the years will vary based on how well it’s stored and the quality of the vinegar. For example, one which has not been aged long may last 3-5 years, whereas a well-aged variety could last a lifetime. If you’re unsure of the age of your balsamic vinegar, examine the viscosity. If it’s thick enough to coat the inside of the bottle like a syrup would when you swirl it and does not include artificial thickeners, it has likely been aged longer.
How to Store Balsamic Vinegar
In short, balsamic vinegar should be kept in a tightly-sealed container away from sunlight and heat sources. While some prefer to use the refrigerator, the extra step is unnecessary, as it does quite well in a cabinet or pantry. Thanks to vinegar’s naturally acidic state, it actually has the ability to kill most bacteria that would otherwise spoil it, which is one of the reasons why it lasts so long. However, the older it gets, the more diluted it becomes, simply because the acid breaks down and water naturally found in the air will make its way in. In other words, an older bottle will be more susceptible to the elements than a newer one, simply because it has been opened more and will be less acidic.
Moreover, even though bacteria is usually killed by the acid, contaminants can still degrade balsamic vinegar, so it’s important to keep it tightly capped when not in use. It also has the tendency to pick up the scents and tastes of pungent things around it, which means keeping it sealed in its original container is best. Many producers opt to bottle theirs in glass that’s amber, blue, or green in color, as they tend to block out UV rays better and preserve the product because it can degrade when exposed to light too. That said, the color of the bottle is not enough to protect it from the heat given off by appliances, such as a stove, which is why cabinet or pantry storage is preferred.
The acetic acid found in balsamic vinegar which helps keep it fresh has been scientifically proven to prevent blood sugar spikes when diabetics consume it with a high-carb meal. Balsamic vinegar also has large amounts of potassium and calcium, plus has been shown to have a positive impact on cholesterol and artery health, so it’s appreciated by foodies and the health-conscious alike.
How to Tell if Balsamic Vinegar is Bad
Most of the time when a bottle of balsamic vinegar has passed its prime, it will simply lose flavor. Combining it in dishes and consuming it poses no risk at all, even if it’s decades old, but you simply won’t get the acidic-sweet taste you’ve come to love and your recipes won’t taste like they usually do.
Some begin to worry when they see strands floating in their vinegar, sediment near the bottom, or a cloudy color, thinking it’s mold. This is actually perfectly normal, though usually only occurs with supermarket-quality varieties that have unfermented sugar or alcohol in them. It’s typically referred to as “Mother of Vinegar” or “Mycoderma aceti” and is the result of the acetic acid coming together with cellulose. Many people use this to try to convert wine into vinegar or consume it for its gut-friendly bacteria. Those who are put off by it can simply filter it out by using a coffee filter.
A real worry sign that a bottle of balsamic vinegar has gone bad is if it has taken on a rancid smell. If it smells bad or unusually potent, it’s best not to consume it. Though this is incredibly rare, it usually signifies it has not been kept properly and is contaminated. However, if you notice it’s cloudy or has particles in it and it does not smell bad, it’s safe to do a small taste test. If it tastes ok and smells ok, you can generally consider balsamic vinegar safe to consume.
How to Determine the Quality of Balsamic Vinegar
Before getting into how to determine the quality of balsamic vinegar, it’s important to note that various grades or levels of quality are suitable for different purposes. For example, one which has not been aged long or was commercially mass-produced may still work well in salad dressings, but it’s arguably not what you would want to serve alongside cheese and fruit. To this extent, it’s much like selecting a wine. You can get away with purchasing a bottle for only a few dollars if you’re adding it to your basic home recipes, but if you’re serving to impress, you’d want an authentic high-quality Italian variety.
As noted earlier, one of the easiest ways to determine quality is to do checks for aging. That means viewing the viscosity, examining the color, and doing a taste test. The more aged it is, the thicker, darker, and sweeter it will generally be. That said, some brands will include additives to give their inferior balsamic vinegar the look of a well-aged variety. To avoid this, you’ll want to look for signs of authenticity, namely a Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) stamp. The name translates to “Protected Designation of Origin,” and means that the product was not only made by local artisans but was crafted using traditional methods. In addition to the stamp, bottles of balsamic vinegar meeting the standards will come numbered and have a special seal as well.
By Italian law, only companies authorized to have the stamp can use the word “traditional,” so seeing the phrase “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” on a bottle is a mark of authenticity and quality. It may also read “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” or “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia” to denote where the vinegar was produced—either in Modena or Emilian-Romagna. Lastly, traditional methods involve aging the balsamic vinegar at least 12 years, though some are aged more than 150 years. Although age alone doesn’t signify quality, it’s a good sign to look for.
While you may find a quality bottle of balsamic vinegar without the DOP stamp, it is by far the quickest and easiest way to identify one.
Italians take balsamic vinegar very seriously. It’s against the law for a company to call their balsamic vinegar “traditional” if trebbiano grapes or another approved variety weren’t used to make it or the grapes weren’t grown in Modena or Emilian-Romagna. Due to the high demand for traditional balsamic vinegar and the high-propensity for counterfeit products on the market, the European Union came up with a second distinction: “indicazione geografica protetta,” (IGP), which translates to “protected geographical indication.” Balsamic vinegar bearing this mark may have grapes grown elsewhere, but the product must be produced in a specific geographic location—usually Modena. Unfortunately, US food-labeling laws are not the same and much of the balsamic vinegar sold in America—even bottles claiming to be from Modena—is fake. It’s important to identify the DOP or IGP stamp and country of origin if you’re looking for an authentic product.
Are All Balsamic Vinegars the Same?
There are many varieties of balsamic vinegar. Even with DOP-stamped bottles, there are two distinct traditional varieties; affinato, which is denoted with a white cap and is aged at least 12 years, and extra-vecchio, which is denoted with a gold cap and is aged at least 25 years. These varieties are not generally coked with, but rather are added to food as it’s being served.
The second-best is usually referred to as “Condimento Balsamico.” These are typically balsamic vinegars made using the traditional process, but don’t qualify for a DOP stamp and the term is unregulated. In some cases, they’re produced by the same companies that create DOP-stamped varieties, but weren’t aged long enough to qualify, while other times they may have been produced with grapes from a different region or the product, itself, was produced in a different region. Occasionally, they’re crafted under all the same guidelines as a DOP product, but the company didn’t have the right oversight to claim it or didn’t go through the approval process. Each one is different, but choosing condimento balsamico can sometimes result in having a great balsamic vinegar at a lower price.
Moving further down the list, you’ll find commercial or “industriale” balsamic vinegars. Quality for these varieties is all over the map as it’s also an unregulated term. For example, some may say they’re “aged in wood,” but that says nothing about the length of time or the type of wood, which means it may not have naturally-complex flavors and the statement is not an indicator of quality. Some mention how long they have been aged, which can be a helpful indicator, but it’s not always accurate.
Lastly, there is imitation balsamic or balsamic products. Sometimes these try to fly under the radar as true balsamic, but the ingredients give them away. A true balsamic will contain only “must.” Must is crushed grape juice which still has all the other grape bits in it, such as stems, skin, and seeds. If the label says it includes anything beyond must, it’s not an authentic product. While some of these can still work for things like dressings and marinades, it’s generally ill-advised to include them in any form of gourmet cooking.
Helpful Information About Balsamic Vinegar
What is balsamic vinegar made of?
The only ingredient in traditional balsamic vinegar is must. Occasionally, condimento balsamico and commercial varieties will also have vinegar (typically wine vinegar) as a second ingredient. Although not quite as good because of the additives and typically-reduced aging process, it tends to be decent. Sometimes you’ll also see additional colorants, flavorings, or thickeners on an ingredient list. These are added to try to make an inferior product look more like the authentic one. It’s safe to say that the fewer ingredients listed beyond must, the better quality the product will generally have.
Is balsamic vinegar good for your health?
As noted earlier, balsamic vinegar has been shown to help keep blood sugar in control for diabetics and can reduce bad cholesterol. Additional research concluded it helps reduce hypertension as well. The antioxidants present in balsamic vinegar are further associated with immune system health, cancer protection, and improved circulation, while its ability to increase pepsin activity is associated with digestive health and weight loss. Some natural health gurus also believe balsamic vinegar can be used to relieve common aches and pains, such as headaches. During the Middle Ages people used it to cope with everything from a sore throat to childbirth. It was even coveted by royalty who believed it was a cure for the plague. They weren’t entirely wrong. Vinegar is indeed part of the disinfectant mix recommended by government agencies today for ridding surfaces of Yersinia pestis—the bacteria which causes the plague.
On top of this, the acetic acid found in both apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar can kill bacteria on the skin that’s responsible for acne, but the vinegar is too potent to be used straight. Instead, dermatologists recommend using a single tablespoon with two cups of water, then dipping a cotton ball in and using it as a toner. However, because many products in the US are not authentic balsamic vinegar, it’s important to steer clear of varieties with additives like thickeners or colorants that can actually cause a breakout. Its many health benefits and ability to be incorporated easily into meals has made it a staple for those who follow the Mediterranean diet.
How many calories are there in balsamic vinegar?
A tablespoon, or roughly 15 grams of balsamic vinegar, is just 14 calories, yet it also contains calcium, iron, potassium, and protein. For comparison, the same amount of olive oil is about 120 calories, meaning balsamic vinegar adds a major burst of flavor and comes with a huge list of health benefits, but has none of the excess calories.
Can balsamic vinegar be used in cooking?
You wouldn’t want to cook traditional balsamic vinegar, as the heat would ruin it and it would be cost-prohibitive. It’s best-served by the drop; typically on fruit such as strawberries or pears. It’s served on creamy dishes too. Cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano will get a drip or two, while deserts like panna cotta and gelato or vanilla ice cream might get a small sprinkle. Those who want to dress up a meal with it can drizzle it on grilled foods, such as seafood or steak just prior to serving. It can also liven up stews and risotto. The key with using a well-aged traditional balsamic vinegar is to use it only at the end of cooking or on uncooked items, and only when the dish doesn’t have much in the way of seasonings or spices; the complex flavor of the vinegar will make it shine. Some will even sip a small amount all by itself after a meal. Although it may seem odd, this is arguably the more traditional way, as early Italians dubbed the glistening tonic “balsamico,” meaning “balsam-like,” a term associated with medicine. By sipping a bit after a large meal, digestion would be aided. Yet, again, they also believed it was a cure-all, so those who could afford to drink it would do so regularly, while the commoners were left with wine vinegar instead.
A good condimento balsamico or IGP variety can be used in much the same way, depending on the quality. Although they may not be suitable for drinking, they will generally provide a similar flavor enhancement to food just before it’s served.
For recipes and actual cooking, you’ll want to use a commercial or imitation variety. They work well for things like marinades and dressings because you can use them liberally without worry of cost. That said, the quality simply won’t be there to use them as a garnishment, as they lack the complexity and sweetness to carry a dish.
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