Balsamic vinegar originated in Modena, Italy, where it has been made for centuries. Grape must is filtered and then boiled, which gives it a unique sweet-and-sour flavor. It is then fermented in wooden barrels to develop all of its aromas. It can be aged as long as 50 years. A word of warning: There are products on the market with this name with different levels of quality. 100 percent traditional balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico di Modena, protected by its PDO status) is only made from certain types of grapes, stored in special barrels and sold in bottles to strict specifications.

The traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Modena (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena), Italy, is protected by its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. This is a genuine balsamic vinegar that has been aged for years in increasingly smaller wooden barrels. Categories include “affinato” (aged for 12 years or more) and “extravecchio” (aged for 25 years or more). These are the most aromatic but also the most expensive varieties. The balsamic vinegar found in supermarkets are not necessarily of bad quality, but they are less expensive. They are generally less old and are not produced in the artisan tradition. Be sure to read the label well; sometimes the product is only caramelized wine vinegar. Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, which is not as strict as PDO, requires the vinegar to be aged for 60 days; but this does not take into account what grapes can be used, often in derisory amounts (20 percent grape must). There is also a “balsamic cream,” a reduction that is thicker than vinegar, allowing it to be used to decorate a dish or a plate.

Balsamic vinegar can be used to deglaze a cooking liquid.

Balsamic vinegar is used to dress salads, deglaze meat, flavor risotto, and enhance fish. It can also be used to accompany desserts, such as strawberries or vanilla ice cream.

Balsamic vinegar can be stored for several years if kept in its original container in a cupboard away from light, heat, and moisture.