Balsamic vinegar is one of those pantry items we don't really question — like olive oil and garlic, you can find it in most home cooks' kitchens if you poke around. You're also almost guaranteed to find it in any supermarket, with prices that range from under $10 all the way up to hundreds of dollars at specialty stores.
That's a relatively new phenomenon in the story of balsamic vinegar, which started as a regional food made in northern Italy. It wasn't until the 1970s, when Giorgio DeLuca imported 150 cases of it for his SoHo store, Dean & DeLuca, that balsamic vinegar became a food trend beyond Italians already in the know. DeLuca, the son of Italian shop owners, was among the first to bring foods like Parmesan and olive oil beyond stores mostly selling to Italian-Americans to a larger audience. In The United States of Arugula, an account of how we got to our food-obsessed present day, DeLuca remembers that he needed to unload the huge order of balsamic quickly — so he tipped off a food writer at The New York Times about the stuff. Soon, it was flying off the shelves, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, sort of. Balsamic's new-found popularity also permanently altered the sauce. Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from the fermentation of grapes and aged for at least 12 years. It has a thick, syrupy consistency, according to Dino Borri, head of buying for Eataly, and is used for finishing foods like Parmesan. He compares true, aged balsamic vinegar to Champagne, something special you bring out on occasion, not use every day. But increased demand in the United States for balsamic meant that the aging process had to be sped up, or flavoring or coloring added.
And, like Champagne, which can only come from the tiny Champagne region of France, balsamic vinegar is also regulated by region. Even inexpensive balsamic vinegar that says it is from or of Modena needs a seal labelled "Protected Geographical Indication," or P.G.I., but that just guarantees origin, not quality. Some balsamic vinegar also comes from the nearby Reggio Emilia, but since the vinegar is so closely associated with Modena, most balsamic in the U.S. is from there.
To get real balsamic that has been aged for 12 years, you have to look for a bottle labeled "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" or "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia." The "tradizionale" is what is regulated, meaning that is indeed aged for a minimum of 12 years in increasingly smaller barrels which is what gives it a rich flavor and deep color. If you are investing in expensive balsamic as a gift or for finishing food, make sure it has one of these labels.
Aside from origin and whether or not it earns the "tradizionale" label, no other Italian on the bottle is regulated. The label "aceto balsamico," for example, just means "balsamic vinegar" in Italian. Another Italian descriptor, "condimento" (aged less, and less expensive), is similarly not currently regulated. Most balsamic vinegar at your local grocery store would probably fall under the "condiment" label."
That said, Borri recommends buying bottles from Modena even for everyday use. Look for language that indicates that the vinegar has been aged, even for a little bit, since the P.G.I. of Modena is not a guarantor. Once purchased, traditional balsamic vinegar can be stored at room temperature for years. (After all, it's already several years old.) Borri recommends using up everyday balsamic within a year, and also storing it at room temperature. Both are sweet and can attract flies, so just keep the bottle clean, as well.
If buying everyday balsamic still leaves you with a headache, Borri has one final recommendation for every day use: try another vinegar. After all, he says, it's the acid, which is found in all vinegars (it is, in fact, what makes it vinegar) that we often find so appealing in our greens. Then you can save true balsamic vinegar for the special occasions.