Finding the right bottle of balsamic vinegar

LOS ANGELES "There's absolutely no balsamic in Americanized balsamic," said Lenny Levy of Gourmet Blends, who is an expert and importer of balsamic vinegar.

Attention shoppers: The balsamic vinegar you find in the grocery is actually red wine vinegar and grape must. It's not true balsamic vinegar.

"Grape must is the beginning of balsamic, like the mother is to yogurt, but there's no balsamic in it," said Levy. "That's why it's so acidic."

Levy says if the ingredient list on your bottle reads "red wine vinegar" and "grape must," that's a sign you don't have real balsamic. Your bottle also contains 6 percent acid, not 4.5 as it should be.

"When you see one that says 'balsamic vinegar' as the ingredient, it's a world of difference between the others," said Levy.

Balsamic comes from the Trebbiano grape grown in northern Italy in the Modena area. It is processed in the heat of an attic, not a cool wine cellar like wine. And the longer it is aged, the thicker and sweeter it becomes.

"Real balsamic pours like syrup, not like water," said Levy.

American brands with fancy labels and a reduction of vinegar may provide a more mellow taste, along with a hike in price, but taste test these brands, and you will see there is a marked difference.

Levy's balsamic from Modena, Gourmet Blends, costs $30 for 12 ounces. Typically, you'll pay that much and more for true balsamic that's aged for at least 15 years. It sounds pricey, but remember, a little bit of the good stuff goes a long way.

"Put it on strawberries, drizzle a little on ice cream, on any kind of cheeses," said Levy. "Some of these make a great finish for beef, lamb or pork.'

In addition, true balsamic is twice the calories per tablespoon of American brands. But the thick, rich intense flavor means using less, often without the need of a companion oil.

"A little balsamic just expands the taste buds," said Levy.

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