When it comes to balsamic vinegar, there are a dizzying array of choices on supermarket shelves. Interestingly, all those vinegars were inspired by a delicacy too pricey for the average grocery store.
Aceto balsamico tradizionale hails from Modena, a province in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, where it’s crafted today exactly as it has been for centuries. Artisans crush sugary white grapes and simmer the juice, or must, in an open vat to concentrate the sugars. The cooked must is then filtered and poured into casks to ferment into vinegar. During the next twelve years (at the very least), the vinegar is ushered through a series of increasingly smaller wooden barrels. The result is a concentrated sweet-sour syrup, more like aged Port than vinegar. Only the best examples of artisan-made balsamico, as decided by a consortium of tasters, wear the word tradizionale on the label. Bottles cost from $50 to $500.
Mail-order sources, for tradizionale balsamicos include Chefshop.com (877-337-2491) and Zingerman’s (888-636-8162; ). When something’s this good, you don’t need much: Drizzle a bit over risotto, sprinkle a few drops on ripe fruit, or sip a thimbleful after dinner.
If you’re looking for an ingredient to splash into marinades and weeknight vinaigrettes, supermarket-shelf balsamics are the better choice. Although they’re mostly red-wine vinegar, sweetened and darkened with cooked grape juice or caramel coloring and flavoring (or both), we’ve found that some are quite good.