Picking a good balsamic comes down to knowing a little bit about how balsamic vinegar is made and what you want to use it for. Basically, the traditional method starts by putting the reduction from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes into a row of wooden barrels that gradually get smaller (known as a battery). The type of wood used will add a distinct flavor as the vinegar is allowed to slowly concentrate over years, while it is moved from the biggest barrel to the smallest barrel. The grape juice reduction goes through a fermentation process that results in a syrupy, sweet and sour condiment bursting with flavors that resemble raisin, cherry and caramel. The powerful blend of flavors go well with steaks, fish, shrimp, scallops , cheese, vegetables, such as asparagus, or fruits, such as strawberries. Most traditional balsamic has a number that helps indicate how concentrated it is. It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as how old it is, but in fact is not its age. The number indicates that the balsamic has the characteristics of a balsamic with the specified number of years. For example, a “6″ may contain a variety of balsamic vinegars, but have the viscosity and sweetness of one that has been aged for 6 years.
Commercial grade balsamic vinegar attempts to mimic the flavors by adding thickeners, flavorings and colorings as a substitute for time. There is a wide variety of success (or failure) and some are passable for cooking. Use this type in cooking, possibly for pasta sauces, dips or as an ingredient in marinades.