The wonder of a balsamic vinegar reduction landed on my radar back in the mid-'90s on a visit to California's Napa Valley.

The wonder of a balsamic vinegar reduction landed on my radar back in the mid-'90s on a visit to California's Napa Valley.

Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello had invited me to his trendy wine country restaurant, Tra Vigne, to sample his fare. The two most memorable offerings he shared both incorporated this syrupy-rich, tangy-yet-smooth ingredient; and in both cases, provided the kind of lick-your-plate perfection we all strive for now and then in cooking.

The first dish was a simple appetizer playing off the subtle, flavorful layering of a well-made fresh mozzarella and slices of backyard-ripened tomatoes and fire-roasted red peppers, resting on puddles of emerald green, basil-infused olive oil. Droplets of his balsamic vinegar reduction floated in the oil — liquid, obsidian-toned capsules of intense flavor that I dipped into along with bites of the delicate cheese and fruity peppers and tomatoes.

Chiarello explained that garnishing with a good-quality (read very old and very expensive!) balsamic vinegar had been popular for eons, but the act of cooking the vinegar down to a syrupy-sweet, concentrated version was still in its infancy, relatively speaking. He called it balsamic essence. And it truly was just that: the rich and savory-sweet essence of balsamic vinegar without a hint of whang.

Then came the polenta: tender, golden triangles of roasted polenta sitting in a buttery, beefy sauce that had such depth of flavor I just sighed. In response, Chiarello dashed from the table with an "I'll be back in a second," as he slipped downstairs to his office. Several minutes later, he returned with computer print-outs of both recipes! As I scanned the ingredients for the polenta sauce, there it was again: balsamic vinegar reduction.

Ever since, I've made sure that I've always got a bit of this lovely essence tucked into the side pocket of my fridge. I keep it in a tiny squeeze bottle with a narrow spout so it can be applied in a slender stream for controlled garnishing. I reach for it when my spaghetti sauce needs zooping up; when a chicken-vegetable saute lacks oomph; when I want to wow our guests with a fancy, squiggly garnish alongside a platter of bruschetta or simple grilled meats. It's unique and special enough to not be considered passe.

One of the best parts of this story is that you don't need to use the most expensive and aged balsamic vinegar to produce a delicious reduction. In fact, with so many affordable vinegars hitting the market, now's the time to cook up some batches in time for the holiday season — both to have on hand for your own cooking and to give away to lucky friends.

Over the years, I've continued to use and adapt the balsamic-based recipes that Chiarello shared with me for his polenta and balsamic sauce. And because they've always been a success in my kitchen, I'm sharing them with you now, along with even more ways to use and enjoy the essence of balsamic vinegar.

A PRIMER FOR BALSAMIC VINEGAR REDUCTIONS

First of all, when boiling balsamic vinegar down into a syrupy essence, you're throwing a lot of steam and aromas into the atmosphere. So if you have an outdoor kitchen of some sort — a single burner on your gas grill, for example, or a one-pot propane burner — that's where I recommend you do it.

Secondly, a neat trick to help you track the reduction process is to visualize where the level of a balsamic reduction will end up in relation to the sides of the pot. The recipe will tell you how much vinegar you're starting out with and how much you'll have when it's reduced. Typically, the volume is reduced to one-third or one-quarter of its original volume. So if you're starting with 2 cups of balsamic vinegar, you'll end up with 1/2 cup.

Pour 1/2 cup of water into the pot you're using. Now take a chopstick or any other straight object and stick it in the pot. Note the level of water on the chop stick. Then, when you're reducing the vinegar, you'll have a visual aid to show you how much more you have to reduce by sticking the chopstick in the simmering liquid and noting how high up on the stick it is.

START WITH THE REAL DEAL: To make a reduction of balsamic vinegar, it's a must that you start with genuine balsamic vinegar. There are plenty of imitations, so read the label. The ingredients should include grape must and red-wine vinegar, NOT cider vinegar, corn syrup and caramel coloring.

On the other hand, do not use the REALLY good stuff that you so lovingly brought back from your adventure in northern Italy last summer. I use the relatively inexpensive commercial balsamics that are becoming readily available here in the United States. In Italian, they are called "industriale" and a couple of good choices are Fini (this is on the high end of expense, however) and Cavalli.

At the low end, I've found respectable brands through such warehouse-style stores as Costco and Cub Foods. The basic flavor is less complex than the spendier, artisan-made balsamics. But a well-made commercial balsamic will at least have sweetness, accentuated by tartness and a lingering richness.

JAN'S BASIC BALSAMIC VINEGAR REDUCTION: To turn one of these average, commercially made balsamic vinegars into a very rich and flavorful balsamic essence, pour 2 cups of the appropriate balsamic vinegar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add 1/2 cup of coarsely chopped yellow onion, 2 teaspoons of sugar and 10 or 12 peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer, uncovered, until the mixture has reduced down to about 1/2 to 1/3 cup and is thickened and somewhat syrupy.

Let the mixture cool (it will thicken a bit more when chilled) and then strain through a fine sieve (making sure to press the onions with the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze out all the juicy balsamic syrup). Store the reduction in a tightly closed jar or bottle with a slender squeeze-top. It will keep for months and months. Use it to drizzle over tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, polenta, grilled chicken or roasted vegetables. For a simple appetizer, pour a small puddle of extremely good-quality, extra-virgin olive oil into the center of a lovely white plate then squirt in a few droplets of the balsamic vinegar reduction. Provide slices of a crusty Italian bread for dipping.

ENRICHED VERSION: While the vinegar mixture is boiling, cut 4 tablespoons of butter into small chunks. After the liquid has reduced, add the chunks of butter one by one, stirring thoroughly after each addition. Do not add another chunk of butter until the previous chunk has thoroughly melted. Makes about 3/4 cup sauce.

STORING YOUR BALSAMIC REDUCTIONS: For long-term storage, refrigerate the reduction, which will maintain quality. But for a week or less, you can certainly keep the sauce at room temperature. It's not a safety issue. I keep a large batch of the sauce in a jar with a non-reactive lid. Then I transfer small amounts into little plastic squeeze bottles (they're about 2-ounce capacity) to make my artistic squiggle presentations. They're available at most craft stores.

The following recipes, based on the one Michael Chiarello shared with me several years ago, have been adapted for the home kitchen. They're big steps up from my basic balsamic vinegar reduction.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.