Beautifully aged and prized for its complexity and richness, balsamic is basically the fine wine of the vinegar world. Sadly, the superiority of the product is reflected not just on your palate but also on its price tag: You can spend a pretty penny on a bottle of the good stuff so if you score some, you may want to use it sparingly. That said, some recipes that call for balsamic can come together quite nicely with an imposter instead, so don’t despair if you can’t make it to an Italian specialty shop before dinnertime. If you need a substitute for balsamic vinegar that will work in a pinch, just consult this guide before you start cooking and you’ll be good to go.
What is Balsamic Vinegar?
True balsamic vinegar is a specialty product from Modena, Italy and 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, our friends at Eataly tell us. This slow fermentation process yields a dark, rich vinegar with a soft and 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.
3 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 good stuff. Here are three 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 can give you an excellent balsamic substitute. For this swap, every 1 ½ tablespoon of balsamic vinegar can be swapped out according to the following formula: 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, a teaspoon of grape jelly and ½ teaspoon of soy sauce (for a little umami flavor). Once you have your ingredients and proportions in order, whisk it all together for a balsamic substitute that’s been endorsed by the experts.
2. Red wine vinegar and maple syrup. Don’t have any grape jelly on hand? No big deal. 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.
3. Balsamic vinaigrette. If you’ve got some balsamic vinaigrette hanging out in your fridge, then you’re in luck. Store-bought balsamic vinaigrette is essentially just a blend of balsamic vinegar and olive oil (i.e., the dressing you’d make at home if you had balsamic on hand) 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 better. Bottom line: This substitute will do the trick with minimal effort and no significant impact on the outcome of your meal when used as a 1:1 swap for authentic and unadulterated balsamic vinegar.