Red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar are two grape-based vinegars popular for a range of European and European-style American dishes. If you are trying to tell the difference between them or want to use one instead of the other, the SPICEography Showdown below might be helpful.
How does red wine vinegar differ from balsamic vinegar?
The first difference has to do with what raw materials of these two vinegars: red wine vinegar is made from red wine as the name suggests. Balsamic vinegar is made from grape juice that has been boiled until its volume reduces by 30 percent. It is then fermented so that its sugar converts to acetic acid. Unlike wine vinegars, its sugar is not first converted to ethyl alcohol. It goes directly from juice to vinegar.
The aging part of the production process is another key difference between balsamic and red wine vinegars. Red wine vinegar is aged for a much shorter time than balsamic vinegar. Most red wine vinegar is aged for no longer than two years. Quality balsamic vinegar is aged in wooden casks for at least 12 years. The more affordable balsamic vinegars that you see on grocery store shelves are not all 12-year-old vinegars. These are actually blends of balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar.
Flavor is one of the key areas where these two vinegars differ. Red wine vinegar’s flavor profile is considerably more assertive than that of balsamic vinegar with stronger acidity and much less sweetness. Balsamic vinegar is mellow, sweet and fruity. Its flavors —including sweetness— are concentrated by the fact that it has been reduced. Its acidity is relatively mild because of the long aging time.
Red vinegar’s consistency is thin and watery like most other vinegars. Balsamic vinegar is thicker and stickier by comparison.
Can you use red wine vinegar as a substitute for balsamic vinegar and vice versa?
Red wine vinegar cannot work as a perfect balsamic vinegar substitute in recipes where the sweetness and rich, fruitiness are essential. It is too harsh and acidic to play the same role. That said, many of the recipes that require balsamic vinegar will not be ruined if you use red wine vinegar instead. For example, salad dressings may not be as sweet, but they will still be enjoyable. You can also use red wine vinegar to make your own version of balsamic vinegar by adding a sweetener like sugar or honey.
Balsamic vinegar will not provide the sharpness and brightness that you would get from red wine vinegar. Its sweetness may make some vinaigrettes cloying and unpleasant; however, it can still work in many of the same applications. You can use it to replace red wine vinegar in many sauces and marinades.
When should you use red wine vinegar and when should you use balsamic vinegar?
Red wine vinegar is best reserved for applications where you need strong acidity. It is a great option for marinades and vinaigrettes. It is versatile enough to be used in pickles as long as you don’t have a problem with the color it will give to some vegetables. Use it in French cooking to make a gastrique sauce or drizzle it over your potato salad.
Balsamic vinegar’s unique sweetness and syrupy consistency can enhance a range of dishes. It is most popular for pan sauces that you use to finish meat and fish dishes as well as for glazes that give sweetness and a shiny coating. It can be served with cheeses or even used as a topping for ice cream.