I've been buying balsamic vinegar for a long time. Small expensive bottles that I use sparingly. DOC. Modena. Really good. Usually it wasn't easy to find.
Then a few years ago, it was everywhere and recipes started calling for lots and lots of it. It's in cheap, prepared salad dressings. Marinades. Big bottles of it cost very little. It's not DOC. The labels say "Packed for some company in NJ" or somewhere. Not even Modena, NJ.
What is this stuff?
There's "tradizionale" balsamic vinegar, which is DOC and expensive, and then there's the everyday mass-produced balsamic vinegar, which can be almost anything. Sort of like the difference between generic parmesan cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I got turned off of balsamic vinegar a long time ago. I, too, was buying the good stuff and using it sparingly. Then this sugar-laden brown stuff started appearing everywhere, and it just killed it for me.
In my kitchen, I still keep a small bottle of real, aged balsamico, to drizzle over Parmigiano or strawberries on occasion, but I've been using Spanish sherry (xeres) vinegar for some of my vinaigrettes. It's got more depth and less sweetness than balsamic.
Funny, I've switched to Sherry vinegar as well. It's very good paired with hazelnut oil; together, they dress all of my salads.
I've been using Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar for almost everyhing after having been to Modena and trying real BV...theres no going back...unless you can afford real BV to use in everything that is...
If you have a bottle of real BV..try a drizzle over good vanilla ice cream...a popular dessert in Modena..so good!