Hot sauces come in all different types, but there is usually one commonality: they contain peppers. Many sauces also contain sweet foods like onions, mangoes, pineapples, peaches and more. With so many fresh ingredients, you’ve probably wondered, does hot sauce go bad?
Simply put, yes, hot sauce can go bad. Despite many sauces containing vinegar to help with preservation, the perishable ingredients can eventually invite mold and bacterial growth over time. This is why in most cases, it is best to store your opened hot sauces in the refrigerator. Colder temperatures slow down the growth of molds, keeping your sauces good for longer. Read the packaging, if it says to refrigerate, do it!
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However, hot sauces have some benefits that make spoiling less likely than other foods:
- Capsaicin. This is the chemical compound that makes hot peppers taste hot. It has also been shown that capsaicin exists in the pepper plant in order to deter the growth of mold and bacteria. It is a natural sterilizer, and can help keep your hot sauces longer.
- Vinegar. Vinegar is highly acidic, and thus it is an inhabitable place for bacteria. Not all sauced contain vinegar, but many are high in it.
Because of the preservation characteristics of these ingredients, some sauces, like Cholula, don’t require refrigeration at all. The acidity level prevents the growth of unwanted bacteria & mold.
Overall, most hot sauces have a very long shelf life. A simple inspection can help you determine whether the sauce is still safe to eat.
How Can I Tell When Hot Sauce Is Bad?
Hot sauce tends to let you know when it has gone bad. Many of us have old, forgotten bottles of hot sauce, keeping them in case the mood ever strikes to use them. However, like most foods, hot sauce will eventually spoil. So how can you tell if your hot sauce has gone bad?
In short, check the hot sauce for an unusual appearance, smell or taste (in that order). If any of these seem off, don’t risk it, just throw it away. It can be painful to throw away a once-good hot sauce, but it’s better than dealing with food poisoning! Use these methods to inspect your hot sauces for spoiling:
- Look. If your hot sauce appears to have spots of fuzz or mold, throw it away. However, discoloration (fading) is normal with oxygen exposure, and is not necessarily a cause for concern. Basically, if something appears to be growing on your hot sauce, it’s time to say goodbye.
- Smell. Next is to check on the smell. Notice a sour or rotten smell? If the smells makes you want to gag or grimace, you’ll know it’s time for the sauce to go. If it smells as delicious as ever, it is probably still okay to eat.
- Taste. The last step is to take a very small taste. Don’t go drinking a spoonful, just a dab to test the flavor. If it seems off, slimy or unusual in any way, spit it out. If not, your hot sauce is most likely still okay to consume.
Note: “Sell by” or “Use by” dates are a good indicator of freshness, but a passed date does not always mean that food is spoiled. However, if you see that the “expiration date” has passed, the food is no longer safe to eat.
Is It Okay If Hot Sauce Changes Color?
The original color of a hot sauce is often vibrant and colorful. This is due to the freshness of the ingredients and the lack of oxygen in the bottle. Once you open a bottle and begin using it, the oxygen can discolor the sauce. This is caused by the same process that turns an apple dark after it has been cut open.
Discolored hot sauce is usually nothing to worry about. Many hot sauces will eventually turn from red, green or orange to brown due to oxidation. This is a natural process that occurs when your hot sauce makes contact with the air, breaking down its chemical composition. This can negatively affect flavor over long periods of time, but is not usually a cause for concern.
Does Hot sauce Need to Be Stored in the Refrigerator?
If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of hot sauces. Last time I counted, there were 22 unfinished bottles (and growing…). Hot sauces offer great variety of flavors and uses, so it’s no wonder they’re so popular. However, there’s only so much space in the refrigerator, and most “normal” people like to keep things like fruits and vegetables instead of hoarding hot sauces. So you might wonder: Does hot sauce need to be refrigerated?
To keep things simple, yes, most hot sauces should be stored in the refrigerator after being opened. However, most can remain shelf stable for well over a year before breaking the seal. We’ll give a couple of common examples for which types of hot sauces should be refrigerated, and which don’t need it.
Vinegar Hot Sauces
Vinegar is a natural preservative, having a high level of acidity. This is why most homemade hot sauce recipes call for 30-50% vinegar on the ingredient list. Most store bought hot sauces are also vinegar based, and this helps give them a longer shelf life. Most commercial hot sauces are also heated to high temperatures in order to destroy harmful bacteria and molds from forming in the bottles.
During the bottling process, hot sauce is typically pasteurized and hermetically sealed. This creates a closed, air-tight environment, free from bacteria. It is also why you hear a little “pop” when you open up a new bottle of hot sauce. This is the sound of air quickly entering the bottle and releasing the seal. After the seal has been broken, even vinegar based sauces should be stored in the refrigerator until they are consumed. I have kept certain vinegar based sauces out of the refrigerator for months days without any issue (like Cholula and Frank’s RedHot), but this is not advised.
Keeping sauces at room temperature is inviting the potential growth of bacteria and molds, as these tend to thrive in warm, moist environments (like inside your hot sauce bottles). As a rule of thumb, vinegar based sauces are better at keeping, but should still be stored in the fridge for safety.
Fermented Hot Sauces
While vinegar based sauces are popular, some people don’t like the flavor or have an intolerance to highly acidic foods. This is where fermenting can help. While fermentation does cause lactic acid to form, the sauces are often less harsh than those with simple distilled white vinegar.
Fermentation involves live, good bacteria breaking down your vegetables into simpler molecules. This causes the formation of lactic acid, which helps preserve the vegetables. However, these live bacteria are not killed off during the process, and this is one of the health benefits of using fermented foods. Lactobacillus is the gut-healthy bacteria present during fermentation that can help regulate digestion.
What does this mean for storing fermented hot sauces? It means that you should refrigerate after reaching the desired level of fermentation. The process will continue in the refrigerator, but at a much slower rate. Also, blending the peppers after fermentation exposes the peppers to oxygen, inviting bad bacteria and mold to grow. Oxygen is the enemy of a healthy ferment, so always store your finished hot sauces in the refrigerator!
Learn how to make your own in our guide to fermented hot sauce here!
I hope this article helps you feel comfortable with knowing when your hot sauce has gone bad. The best solution is to keep your sauces sealed until you’re really ready to use them frequently. If you have the space, always keep your opened hot sauces in the fridge! Enjoy.