For a long time I only went to one specialty gourmet store for balsamic vinegar. Their house brand was thick and sweet and amazing on everything, from bread to salad to chicken. The gourmet store only stocked their house brand, and it had an entire dedicated shelf. As far as I knew, the house brand was not available anywhere else in town.
The gourmet store was slightly out of the way, and eventually there were times when I wished I could grab balsamic vinegar at the normal grocery stores that I did most of my grocery shopping in.
The first time I attempted it, I was rushed for time and it was a disaster. I knew the approximate price range that I should be looking at (around $25 CAD for a ~200ml bottle), but there were a dozen vinegars that fit the bill, and they all had pretty fancy looking packaging, and I was AP’d AF. I basically picked randomly based on vibes, and I picked wrong. The vinegar was the consistency of water, sour, and not fragrant at all.
The second time, I was ready. Recall that the balsamic vinegar I wanted was thick and sweet. It turns out that you can use your literacy skills and senses to right there in the store ensure that the vinegar you buy are both of those things!
Again, first I culled all the vinegars that seemed to be priced way too cheaply – like under $10 for a sizeable bottle. Then I started systemically picking up the remaining bottles, and tipping them sideways. Most of the bottles were tinted but not opaque, so you can see the vinegar inside. Anything that moved like water I put back – those were a sizeable portion. A few bottles were truly opaque, those also went back on the shelf.
For the vinegars that flowed a bit more slowly, I turned the bottle around to look at the nutrition facts. Sweet vinegars are going to have sugar in them – no one has been brave and visionary enough to make fancy vinegars with aspartame yet. Thickness and sweetness turned out to be traits that were 100% correlated, at least in one direction: all the thick vinegars had sugar content of around 8-12g per tablespoon. I picked the cheapest bottle that met the two criteria to try. It was $2 more than the bottle I get at the gourmet store for the same amount, and slightly better tasting IMO. (I just checked the house brand vinegar I still had half a bottle of, and they have 11g of sugar per tablespoon.)
I am now incrementally more powerful at grocery shopping.
In fancy restaurants they sometimes give you bread and a bowl of nice vinegar and olive oil to dip it in. This is delicious, but we can do better. When the vinegar and oil are in the same bowl, the bread must travel through the layer of oil (hydrophobic) to get to the vinegar (water-based), and then back out through the oil. This results in bread pieces that have very little vinegar and too much oil on them. If you instead put the vinegar and oil in separate bowls, you can dip the bread lightly into the vinegar first and then dunk it in the oil. This results in a much better ratio of vinegar and oil on your bread.
Having fresh baguette slices and bowls of nice olive oil and vinegar out at a party has never ever been a bad choice in my experience. It’s not actually that expensive, and it’s vegan by default 🙂