Beautifully aged and prized for its complexity and richness, balsamic vinegar is sort of like a fine wine of the vinegar world. Unfortunately, its quality is reflected on the palate and the price tag: You could easily spend a pretty penny on a bottle of the good stuff without intending to. That said, some recipes that call for balsamic can come together quite nicely with an uncanny replacement, so there's no need to despair if you can't make it to an Italian specialty shop before dinner. If you need a substitute for balsamic vinegar, consult this guide for four clever ideas that will work in a pinch.
Need a Substitute for Balsamic Vinegar? Here Are 4 Clever Swaps
Salad dressing waits for no missing ingredient
What Is Balsamic Vinegar?
True balsamic vinegar is a specialty product from Modena, Italy; much like Champagne, it cannot be separated from the geographical region that is its ancestral home. In fact, if you know the history, the parallels to wine make a lot of sense because balsamic has its origins in the winemaking process: The vintners of Modena have been reserving unfermented grape juice to make this tangy nectar for centuries, and the tradition hasn’t been touched.
What sets true balsamic apart from other vinegars is that the grape juice is boiled down to a thick syrup and barrel-aged for a considerable length of time—a minimum of 12 years, say our friends at Eataly. This slow fermentation process yields a dark, rich vinegar with a soft, sweet flavor profile. You’ll know that your bottle is the real deal if it has “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” on the label and carries a D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) stamp, which is a European Union certification that guarantees the product’s quality and place of origin. In other words, an authentic balsamic vinegar boasts a remarkably refined balance of sweetness and acidity, along with the complexity of age that makes it particularly well-suited for use in dressings, sauces and marinades.
Not all balsamic vinegars are made in the traditional manner, however. A more affordable option is to look for bottles labeled “Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP,” “Balsamico Condimento” or another imitation that has only been aged for a minimum of two months and uses flavor and color additives to mimic the flavor and texture of the traditional stuff. A good rule of thumb is the more expensive the bottle, the more complex, sweet and viscous the vinegar will be, says Food52.
4 Substitutes for Balsamic Vinegar
It’s true that balsamic is a precious liquid in the culinary world, but that doesn’t mean your meal is doomed without the real deal. Here are four quick fixes you can count on when you need a substitute for balsamic vinegar:
1. Grape Jelly, Red Wine Vinegar and Soy Sauce
Per the pros at Food Network, a dig around your pantry may result in an excellent balsamic substitute. For this swap, every 1½ tablespoons of balsamic vinegar can be swapped in favor of the following formula: 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon of grape jelly and ½ teaspoon of soy sauce, for a little dose of umami. Once you have your ingredients and proportions in order, whisk it all together for a balsamic substitute endorsed by the experts.
2. Red Wine Vinegar and Maple Syrup, Honey or Sugar
Don’t have any grape jelly on hand? No biggie. Former food scientist and culinary blogger Jules Clancy says you can approximate balsamic vinegar with a combination of red wine vinegar and maple syrup or honey. The proportions for this substitution differ depending on the application, though. For salad dressing and general use, Clancy recommends a ratio of 1 part sweet-and-sticky stuff to 4 parts red wine vinegar. However, in instances where you want a drizzle of balsamic on your dish as a finishing touch, you’ll benefit from a more generous 1:2 ratio of honey/maple syrup to red wine vinegar to get that thicker consistency. (P.S.: You can also cook five parts vinegar and one part sugar, ideally brown, in a pan over low heat, stirring constantly until dissolved, if you're really in a pinch.)
3. Lemon Juice, Molasses and Soy Sauce
This combination may sound unconventional, but it hits all the right notes to achieve a pretty solid substitute for balsamic vinegar. Lemon juice offers acidity, molasses imparts color and sweetness and soy sauce infuse the optimal dose of umami into every drop. Simply mix the ingredients in equal parts until evenly combined, says The Spruce Eats.
4. Balsamic Vinaigrette
If you’ve got some balsamic vinaigrette hanging out in your fridge, you’re in luck. Store-bought balsamic vinaigrette is a blend of balsamic vinegar and olive oil that’s designed to make salad prep easier. The additional olive oil is unlikely to derail any recipe...and it may very well make your finished dish taste even better. Bottom line: This substitute will do the trick with minimal effort and no significant impact on the overall taste of your meal when used as a 1:1 swap for authentic, unadulterated balsamic vinegar.