Balsamic vinegar enhances an array of dishes, from salads and steamed vegetables to grilled meats, sauces and even desserts. A specialty of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, primarily of the town of Modena, balsamic is an aged vinegar made from the pure wine must (unfermented grape juice that may contain stems, skins and seed) of white Trebbiano grapes. The must is cooked in kettles to a thick consistency, then aged in a series of barrels of decreasing sizes, each constructed from a different aromatic wood (oak, cherry, mulberry, chestnut and juniper) that contributes to the vinegar's deep color and taste.
Authentic balsamic vinegar is designated by the word tradizionale or with an Italian consortium seal on the label. (The consortium monitors production and standards of quality.) It is aged for as little as 1 year and up to 25 years, 50 years or 75 years—and sometimes far longer. Through slow evaporation over time, the vinegar grows increasingly sweet and mellow.
Long-aged balsamic is an intense, expensive, syrupy vinegar that should be used sparingly; only a few drops are necessary. True balsamic that is aged for a shorter time is also available. Younger balsamic makes a superb salad dressing and is used, often reduced, in sauces for other foods or is sprinkled over fruit.
Store vinegar in its original glass bottle in a cool, dark cupboard. It will keep indefinitely. Although vinegar may cloud with time, it is still usable and may simply need to be filtered through a heavy paper towel or coffee filter.