You know all about ACV and the distilled white stuff, but there’s a world beyond those vinegars that can kick up any dish. Follow these five simple rules to make your dishes sing—not burn.
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For the past few years, apple cider vinegar has stolen the spotlight, albeit more for health reasons than culinary ones. In all the uproar about whether ACV is a miracle elixir that can melt fat and beautify skin, its acidic cousins have gotten pushed to the back of the pantry.

Big mistake. Huge.

Few ingredients have the versatility, range, and potency of vinegar when it comes to cooking. No one know this better than Rich Landau, chef and co-owner of Vedge restaurant in Philadelphia. Working with a meat-free menu forces him to get creative with flavors, and vinegar is one of his favorite tools for the job. We asked for his golden rules and favorites.

1. Don’t buy cheap vinegar.

“If you’re buying anything over 16 ounces that costs under $5, use it to clean your windows, not on food,” Landau says. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune, either—he’s noticed diminishing returns on bottles $25 and up. Something in the mid range is good (try: Antica Italia Aged Balsamic Vinegar, $15, Amazon).

2. Use it sparingly.

One way to justify spending a little more on vinegar is that a little goes a long way. “Most people overuse it, which makes a dish painfully acidic, and then have to balance that with more fat and sugar,” Landau says. He prefers to think of vinegar like salt—small amounts get big results. Even in salad dressings, his rule of thumb is four parts oil to one part vinegar.

3. Match the vinegar to the dish.

You can substitute within reason. Most of the time, using what you have on hand won’t kill a dish, but for optimal culinary impact, certain vinegars work best with certain flavors. His starter kit for home chefs includes a basic white vinegar for pickling, rice vinegar for all Asian foods, an aged balsamic for finishing dishes, and his favorite, sherry vinegar, which he claims makes flavor pop more than any other ingredient. “It takes on an umami quality, and really fills your palate when you’re eating it.”

4. Think outside the salad bowl.

Yes, vinegar is an essential ingredient in homemade dressings, but it has a similar effect on any kind of vegetable. Landau likes to douse roasted or grilled veg—anything that doesn’t have a high water content—in a splash of vinegar while still warm, which he says infuses the flavor all the way through. Sherry vinegar is the secret ingredient in a number of the restaurant’s sauces, even for desserts, because it balances them nicely. Kate Jacoby, Vedge’s co-owner, also uses vinegars to make syrups for shrubs and nonalcoholic drinks.

5. Replace them regularly.

People tend not to think of vinegar, which is aged to begin with, as having an expiration date, but like spices and dried herbs, they tend to lose their oomph after  about six months. But that just gives you a chance to experiment with new varieties. Some more to check out: golden balsamic, which has a lighter, sweeter tang than the dark stuff, and black vinegar, a Hong Kong condiment that is enhanced with dried fruit and has an almost sweet and sour effect.