What Is Balsamic Vinegar and How Is It Made?

Balsamic vinegar is not a wine vinegar

Panna cotta with pizzelle, strawberries and balsamic vinegar
© 2014 Dana Galagher/Getty Images, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Balsamic vinegar has become all the rage in America, thanks to creative chefs at upscale restaurants. It is difficult to believe that this robust product of the vine has only come to be appreciated within the last two decades in America when Italians have been enjoying it for centuries.

The rich, slightly sweet flavor of balsamic vinegar readily lends itself to salad dressings and gourmet marinades and sauces.

A dash can also add flavor to a soup or stew. It brings out the sweetness of fresh such as raspberries, strawberries, and peaches.

Its flavor and the complex fragrance are exalted over its lowly cousin, red wine vinegar, just as red wine vinegar leaps ahead of white vinegar. Before delving into a myriad of recipes using balsamic vinegar, learn a little bit more about it and how to use it.

How Balsamic Vinegar Is Made

How does a lowly vinegar come to reap such praise? As far back as 900 years ago, vintners in the Modena, Italy region were making balsamic vinegar, which was taken as a tonic and bestowed as a mark of favor to those of importance.

Although it is considered a wine vinegar, it is not a wine vinegar at all. It is not made from wine, but from grape pressings that have never been permitted to ferment into wine.

Sweet white Trebbiano grape pressings are boiled down to a dark syrup and then aged under rigid restrictions.

The syrup is placed into oaken kegs, along with a vinegar "mother," and begins the aging process. It is required to be aged for 12 years in wood. Over the years it graduates to smaller and smaller kegs made of chestnut, cherry wood, ash, mulberry, and juniper until it is ready for sale. All of these woods progressively add character to the vinegar.

As it ages, moisture evaporates out, further thickening the vinegar and concentrating the flavor.

Some balsamic vinegars have been aged for over 100 years. It is this aging process that makes true balsamic vinegar from Modena in Northern Italy so expensive. Luckily, a little balsamic vinegar goes a long way, much like saffron.

Selecting Balsamic Vinegar

Top quality balsamic vinegar labeled aceto balsamico tradizionale, indicating that the traditional methods from Modena have been used in processing and aging it. You will get what you pay for, so expect a top price for the best. If you pay less, there may be sulfites added as a preservative.

Storing Balsamic Vinegar

You only need to store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dark place away from heat, such as in the cupboard. It doesn't need to be refrigerated. It won't oxidize once opened and will keep indefinitely. You don't have to worry if you see some sediment as that is a natural by-product of the aging process and it isn't harmful.

Reference and Recipe Books

You may find these books of use when cooking with balsamic vinegar. Buy From Amazon.com: