Balsamic Vinegar: What It Is, How to Use It, and Why It's Important?

Balsamic vinegar was first imported commercially into the United States in 1978 from Williams-Sonoma. Soon thereafterit was celebrated in fine restaurants and gourmet food shops, but it would be several years before it landed on supermarket shelves and at home kitchens.

Now, four decades after its introduction from the U.S., balsamic vinegar is found in every grocery store and even at many fast-food drive-through windows.

Even so, confusion remains about what balsamic vinegar is. That confusion undoubtedly stems from the fact that a lot of what is labeled"balsamic" bears no relation to the real thing. How did that happen? And with a dizzying number of varieties to select from, what's the best way to understand and appreciate the true flavor of balsamic vinegar?

A Little History

Italians have been making balsamic vinegar since Roman times, when its primary purposes were medicinal rather than culinary. Occasionallyit was used as a sweetener, or to enhance the flavor of savory foods. Production was Limited to the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in the Emilia Romagna region.

Surprisingly, balsamic is made from wine, but rather from the unfiltered juice of freshly crushed white grapes, known as must (or mosto, in Italian). The must (such as the stalks, skin, and seeds) is boiled down, or reduced, to a syrupy liquid, which is then aged in wooden barrels. The barrels are stored in attics rather than wine cellars, because heat creates the right atmosphere for the essential fermentation.

As time passes, the vinegar is transferred into a collection of barrels of various woods (oak, cherry, chestnut, juniper, and others), picking up yeasts and other natural components from the woods as it matures and mellows. It is also frequently mixed with parts of older vinegars. All of these factors account for its incredible complexity of flavor. And, of course, age matters--the finest vinegars are aged for several years and even decades.

Purchasing Balsamic

Keep two things in mind when choosing balsamic vinegar: First, you get what you pay for, and secondly, mind the label. Authentic balsamics are made inside the Emilia Romagna and marked with one of two classifications: Traditional DOP (or, Tradizionale Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), that is sometimes translated as on labels as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).

The production of DOP vinegars is strictly monitored. They need to be made with grapes from the Emilia Romagna area (usually Trebbiano or Lambrusco) and aged for at least 12 years. (Anything aged for 25 years of more is considered"extra old" and awarded a gold label.) These traditional vinegars sell for tens of thousands of dollars every bottle. If you can get your hands on one, treat it accordingly--in other words, then drop by drop. It's known as"liquid gold" for very good reason.

Think of it as a finishing touch rather than a recipe component (and never subject it into heat). Try out a few drops grilled or roasted meats, fish, or vegetables, or even on a cheese plate, or tossed with fresh tomatoes, peaches, figs, or melon. Drizzle it on sorbet, gelato, or panna cotta. You might have a spoonful as a digestive, as many Italians do.

IGP vinegars are somewhat more common, accounting for about 90 percent of the bottles currently made in the area. They are more accessibly priced, but not necessarily cheap. Their creation is monitored, but not as strictly as it is for DOP.

The grapes can come from anywhere in the world, as long as they are processed at Emilia Romagna and aged for at least 60 days. Use IGP vinegar sparingly in sauces and marinades, risottos, and vegetable dishes, or even from fruity or frozen desserts. Or try this trick: Mix a small amount into a dressing made with ordinary wine vinegar, which will punch up the flavor. You could toss IGP balsamic with raw onions and a pinch each of sugar and salt; let that sit for a little while, then try it with grilled meat or fish.

You might also try reducing a non-DOP vinegar to concentrate its flavor. Lidia Bastianich recommends making a balsamic reduction for drizzling over meats and vegetables, or as a glaze for roasts.

She combines a pint of IGP balsamic with honey and bay leaf, and then simmers it till it is a third of its original volume (for glaze) or a quarter (for a condiment). Refrigerated in an airtight container, this should keep indefinitely. This syrup to serve with chicken liver mousse is similar.

A third balsamic choice is known as condimento. The production of these vinegars is not tracked by the same consortium that authenticates DOP and IGP, but that doesn't mean that they are not worth looking for. There are intriguing options, including a few artisanal varieties made from the U.S. For the very best tasting vinegars, stick with these priced at $15 and up per jar, and pay close attention to the label, the color, and the depth. Avoid anything with additives such as sugar or caramel.

Which brings me to the last kind of balsamic vinegar: supermarket varieties, for lack of a better description. Anything sold for less than $10 a jar is very likely to be a cheap imitation of authentic balsamic, meaning a combination of cheap white wine vinegar and added sugars. These are balsamic vinegars in name only, with flavors that are one note, best described as cloying.