Does Hot Sauce Need Refrigerated?
Short answer: yes and no.
You may see the words “refrigerate after opening” on your favorite bottles of hot sauce.
Why does my hot sauce need to be refrigerated? Like many commercially packaged food products, it has an expiration date. The hot sauce shelf life is typically one year from the date of production. Many restaurants have open bottles of condiments sitting at the dining table such as ketchup, mustard, and you guessed it; hot sauce. If the restaurants are allowed to have these sauces sitting on the table, then it must be fine. Right? And largely, it is.
Hot sauce is shelf stable at room temperature because of its high acid content. The ingredient that gives the high acidity typically is a form of vinegar. Sauces produced by fermentation may not contain as much vinegar. Fermented sauce may contain no vinegar at all, as it is still shelf stable because of the same basic principle of pH. We will discuss the similarities and differences between fermented sauces and vinegar-based sauces in a later post.
Hot sauce as a food product falls into the categorization of “acidified food”. This means it contains low or non-acid ingredients that have been combined with high acid ingredients, such as vinegar, to create an acidified food. Vinegar can be stored at room temperature because of its high acidity. It likely will not go bad for many years. The type of vinegar affects its shelf life. Some vinegars may start to turn after a few years, whereas a white vinegar may last indefinitely.
Combining low acid foods with high acid foods brings the pH below the threshold where microbes can grow. Some of these organisms, such as yeast, can cause the food to spoil and go rotten. More importantly, this low pH environment inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria such as botulinum that can cause serious illness or even death.
This high pH environment plays a large part in why a sauce does not need to be refrigerated after opened. So why is it recommended to refrigerate after opening?
Why does hot sauce need refrigerated after opening?
Refrigeration plays a key role in the preservation of fresh foods by keeping the temperature low. Low temperatures keep bacteria from growing, which keeps the food from rotting. These bacteria are not likely to grow in the high acid environment of hot sauce. So what reasons are there for refrigerating your sauce?
Refrigerating a sauce will extend its potential life by many months, by helping maintain its fresh flavor and color. When bottles sit on the table for months, the colors can degrade where they are no longer so fresh and bright in appearance. The flavors may also change and not be quite as strong. When you open a bottle, it exposes the contents to air and the microbes it contains, (which is not likely to do much harm). Sauce might stick to the inside of the cap or rim of the bottle and dry out, which could then be a potential hosting place for bacterial growth. Keeping the cap and the rim of the bottle clean can help prevent this from happening.
If you are like me and your favorites get consumed within a week, none of this will make a difference. Your sauces will still be fresh and tasty.
When should I refrigerate hot sauce? Is it okay to leave out on the table?
When you don’t plan on consuming that bottle of sauce in a short period of time, you should put it in the refrigerator. Refrigeration helps keep the flavor and color fresh for each time you consume it. If you decide to keep it on the table and have it ready to eat with your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then you shouldn’t worry much about it making it you sick. As long as the producer has paid close attention to measuring the pH of each batch and done their due diligence in safe production practices, then you’re golden.
Enjoy your Awesome Sauce!