Balsamic vinegar has only become hot in the US in the last 15 years or so, but it has been around for centuries in Italy. Made from the must of Trebbiano grapes in the Modena valley, balsamic vinegar is slowly aged in a series of graduated sized wood casks made of seven different kinds of wood! The age of the vinegar is the best indication of its quality and the richness of its flavor. Today, the number of balsamic vinegars on the market is overwhelming; most of them aren't worth bothering with!
- Pay attention to price. Cheap balsamic vinegar is just that. If all you can find in your market is cheap mass-produced balsamic vinegar, head to the web and get good stuff online. There are dozens of web sites selling good balsamic vinegar, including Dean&Deluca, Amazon and epicurious. The best balsamics can cost more than $150 for only 3 ounces!
- Check for the age of the vinegar. Not all producers put it on the label; most of the unlabeled is less than three years old. The pricier the vinegar, the older it will be. Some standard ages are five years, eight years, twelve years, 25 and 50 years.
- Real balsamic vinegar is labeled "Aceto Balsamico di Modena" and will have a stamp or seal from the Consortium (Consorzio) which maintains strict rules of production and aging. Stuff that just says "balsamic vinegar" may be produced anywhere else in Italy and may not follow the same strict rules. That said, a lot of it tastes just as good (the younger stuff) and will cost far less. This is the majority of what is available on grocery store shelves in the US. It's not bad, but there is better out there!
- The older the vinegar, the more intense the flavor will be and the more sparingly it should be used. Try better and best quality vinegars drizzled over vanilla ice cream, with fresh strawberries or sipped in cordial glasses!
- Use young balsamic for marinades, sauces and vinegars. The older, richer varieties have too much complexity and flavor to be mixed with other ingredients.
- If your budget doesn't allow for multiple or expensive vinegars, you can "cheat" by simmering young, less expensive balsamic over low heat with a few teaspoons sugar until it is reduced to a thickness you want. Some restaurant menus even feature entreés "finished with a balsamic reduction," which is exactly what I described here! Try the reduced balsamic drizzled on roasted salmon or game birds, for an elegant twist to strawberry shortcake or for dipping bread that has been spread with butter and Parmesan cheese and toasted.
- Like olive oil, store balsamic vinegar away from heat. Almost all of it comes in dark bottles so light is not an issue.