The Surprising Health Benefits of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (and 3 Recipes That Use It in More Than Just Salad)
Most people think of balsamic vinegar as simply a salad dressing ingredient, and they’re not wrong, but it’s so much more than that. If you pick a bottle of balsamic vinegar off the shelf at the grocery store, there’s a good chance that it will taste sour and tangy, but when made the traditional way, it’s primarily sweet and syrupy, not acidic. This vinegar reflects a nearly 1,000-year-old process that originated in the Italian regions of Modena and Emilia-Romagna.
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Made from crushed grape must (the sweet juice from freshly pressed grapes), traditional balsamic vinegar absorbs the color and flavors from the wood barrels in which it ages, creating complex, sweet notes, and a syrup-like consistency. Ahead, find our go-to tips for sourcing the best balsamic vinegar and cooking with it so that you can reap its added health benefits.
How to buy balsamic vinegar
Shopping for balsamic vinegar can be confusing because there are three different categories, all of which are available at wildly different price points: the first is called tradizionale (traditional) or aceto balsamico tradizionale. This balsamic vinegar ages for at least 12 years in wood barrels and carries a high price tag; the second category, balsamic vinegar of Modena, combines grape must with wine vinegar, which makes production cheaper compared to traditional balsamic vinegar. Though processed and packaged in Modena, the grapes can come from anywhere in the world. The quality isn’t necessarily bad, but there is a noticeable difference between it and tradizionale.
Finally, condimento-grade balsamic is the naturally sour and tangy wine vinegar that you might be picturing. Sugar may be added to mimic aged balsamic vinegar, which means a more artificially sweet flavor and additional calories. But those who aren’t aware of these differences may inadvertently purchase a balsamic that isn’t what they expected. Your best bet is to check the back label on balsamic vinegar, to verify its ingredients: if it has anything more than “cooked grape must,” leave it on the shelf.
When shopping for traditional balsamic vinegar, consider the color of the label, too: red means that it’s been aged for 12 years, silver indicates 18 years, and gold means a whopping 25 years (we’d recommend saving the latter for an extra-special occasion).
Benefits that all vinegars share
In addition to tasting delicious drizzled over a caprese salad, balsamic vinegar is good for you, too. “All vinegar has acetic acid, which has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, and improve the overall sense of satiety,” says Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, LD, Director of Culinary Medicine at AdventHealth Whole Health Institute. “When you add something acidic to a meal, it’s helping to tenderize and break down your food, which improves your overall digestion and absorption of the nutrients.”
Vinegars can also help manage our blood sugars, says Joan O’Keefe, RDN, LD, CEO of Cardiotabs. “Vinegars, in general, blunt blood sugar spikes, which helps prevent inflammation and sugar addiction. When you eat a simple sugar, it’s a very small molecule and your body has no digestion to do, so the simple sugar gets thrown into the bloodstream.”
We’ve all had sugar rushes (and subsequent crashes) so what exactly is the big deal? “Those spikes (and crashes) are very dangerous. Every spike and crash causes inflammation,” says O’Keefe.
Health benefits of balsamic vinegar
Due to its low glycemic index, people with diabetes can often use traditional balsamic vinegar, despite its natural sweetness. Aged balsamic vinegar tastes better, but the longer it ages, the stronger its antioxidant capacity and the larger the amount of polyphenols, too. Traditional balsamic vinegar yields higher antioxidant levels than those found in other types of balsamic vinegar. Markley also points out that balsamic vinegar is a rich source of resveratrol, which helps reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol (aka the “bad” kind of cholesterol).
O’Keefe likes to incorporate balsamic vinegar into her diet for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and probiotic activity. “Balsamic vinegar is a probiotic,” she says. “Immunity comes from the gut so the more good bacteria you have, the better your immunity.”
Beyond salad dressing
There’s nothing wrong with drizzling thick balsamic vinegar over shingled layers of tomato and fresh mozzarella — in fact, there’s everything right with that. But if you’ve invested in a nice bottle of balsamic vinegar, you should cook with it every which way. Because of its thicker consistency, Markley likes to add traditional balsamic to salads, vegetables, or proteins as a finishing touch. She has also used it in marinades, and adds it to soup, near the end of the cooking time, to maximize flavor. As for dessert, Markley drizzles thick balsamic over vanilla ice cream with roasted strawberries as a robust alternative to hot fudge.
O’Keefe likes to brush Modena balsamic over fish and uses it as an accoutrement for cold shrimp (though grilled shrimp or chicken breasts would be just as tasty). Serve it in a small dipping bowl on a charcuterie platter with cheese or brushed on cooked meats, such as pork tenderloin or hamburgers, for even more flavor.
The benefit of using Modena balsamic as a marinade for, say, chicken is that it adds a sweet depth of flavor without overpowering the meat with its vinegariness. When added to crunchy green salads, the sweet flavor can also help increase your vegetable intake (who doesn’t like an excuse to eat a little something sweet). Plus, if you build flavor with balsamic vinegar, you probably won’t need to use nearly as much salt, which can be problematic for those with high blood pressure.
If you’re ready to experiment with traditional balsamic vinegar in your own kitchen, here are several great recipes. Get ready for a delicious burst of flavor as you also enjoy some terrific health benefits.
1. Grilled Herbed Chicken Breast with Balsamic Vinegar and Strawberries
Recipe author Silvia Baldini uses traditional balsamic vinegar for this bright, fresh dish. Balsamic-marinated strawberries meet health-promoting ingredients that include garlic, basil, and flavonoid-rich parsley. Add a side of mushroom-dotted wild rice and a crisp salad for a complete, tasty meal.
2. “No-Recipe” Charred Asparagus with Aged Balsamic & Manchego
A balsamic drizzle cuts through mild, sweet manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. High in protein, this legendary cheese also contributes generous servings of vitamins A, D and E to your diet. This side would taste great alongside pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes from the grill.
3. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Tofu and Zucchini Ribbon Skewers
Recipe author Francesca Bonadonna even specifies which balsamic vinegar she uses for this dish, which we appreciate — and she adds numerous flavorful ingredients to the tofu. Bonadonna also suggests several possible cooking methods, making the recipe highly accessible to most cooks. If you don’t respond well to soy products, some precooked chicken or chickpea tofu can be substituted.
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