Do you have a collection of hot sauces in your kitchen? Growing up, my family always kept our various spicy condiments in the fridge. But while some prefer to keep their sauces cold, others may want them at room temperature so they don’t shock otherwise warm food, or to free up valuable fridge space.
The bad news: Personal preference isn’t a safe method for determining how to store your hot sauce.
The good news: The ingredients determine whether a sauce needs to be refrigerated, and it’s pretty easy to locate them.
Have a stash of hot sauces and wonder where you should really be storing them? HuffPost spoke with food safety experts to get the lowdown.
What to look for on the label
Knowing the best place to store hot sauce is as simple as knowing the ingredients.
“Hot sauces have salt, vinegar and capsaicin ― the heat compound in chilis ― all of which work to keep sauces safe,” said Gill Boyd, a chef-instructor of culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education. Capsaicin prevents bacteria from forming, and so does the acidity in vinegar. Many commercially made hot sauces have vinegar as a base, making them especially shelf stable.
“To see if a sauce is vinegar-based, check the label ― it will be listed as the second ingredient after the peppers,” Boyd said.
You may still want to put a vinegar-based hot sauce in the fridge, especially if you use it infrequently and want it to last longer. “Even though you don’t have to refrigerate it, doing so will preserve the color and flavor longer,” Boyd added.
While vinegar acts as a natural preservative, there are usually also food additives to make a sauce shelf stable. “Commercially made hot sauce tends to include preservatives or additives that allow them to be stored at room temperature,” Boyd said. “One of the most common is xanthan gum, which is a stabilizer and binder that prevents ingredients from separating.”
But if you buy an artisanal brand or make your own hot sauce and don’t add additional ingredients to extend its shelf life, you likely need to keep it in the fridge. “Natural and homemade sauces might require refrigeration due to their lack of preservatives,” Boyd explained.
Most brands of chili crisp are not vinegar-based and do require refrigeration. Another type of ingredient to look out for is fruit. Sauces made with mango, pineapple or tomato need to be kept refrigerated so they don’t spoil. The sugars in them weaken acidity.
Also keep an eye out for oil-based sauces. “Oil-based hot sauces require refrigeration after being opened or they will go rancid,” said Allie Echeverria, a registered dietitian.
Boyd echoed that advice: “If oil is the second ingredient, there will likely be enough to dilute the preserving effect of the salt and vinegar, and may allow bacterial growth if stored at room temperature ― so I’d recommend storing in the refrigerator.”
There’s an even more obvious sign
Not sure where you should store your hot sauce? One of the easiest ways is to read the label. “Most sauces will mark on their labels ‘refrigerate after opening,’ which is something you should follow to maintain freshness and flavor,” Boyd said. “Always read the label to find out the ingredients and storage directions.”
Hot sauce that can be stored at room temperature should be stored in a dark and cool area, such as a cupboard. “Avoid direct sunlight or sources of heat, because they can cause bacteria growth and speed up the amount of time it takes for the product to spoil,” Echeverria said.
The benefits of storing hot sauce in the fridge
Even if your hot sauce doesn’t need to be kept in the refrigerator for food safety reasons, you might decide to store it there anyway. Storing hot sauce in a cold environment can prevent the sauce from oxidizing, which alters the color and flavor.
“Most hot sauces are sold in glass or clear packaging, and color may change over time, impacted by light,” said Linda J. Harris, professor of microbial food safety at the University of California, Davis. “Flavor profiles may change and become less intense over time, [and] these chemical processes generally slow down with cooler storage.”
When in doubt about where to keep your hot sauce, your best bet is the fridge. “In general, without proper knowledge of how a hot sauce has been made, it is always safer to store in the refrigerator,” Boyd said.
How long does hot sauce last?
Hot sauces don’t last indefinitely, even when stored properly. Typically, a bottle can last up to six months or a couple of years based on how it’s made and where it’s stored.
“Variations in the makeup of the hot sauce will determine its shelf life,” Boyd said. “Those made commercially with additives and preservatives may last one to two years or even longer,” he said, adding that artisanal or homemade hot sauce usually lasts around six months to a year when refrigerated.
Despite how long a hot sauce may be deemed good, the flavor tends to decline. “Quality decreases over time, often very slowly,” Harris said. “For many hot sauces, I think most people would be unable to distinguish minor differences in quality.”
If you’re not sure if a hot sauce is still good to use, there are signs that will indicate when it’s time to toss it. “Check for color changes, taste changes, a crust under the cap, and mold growth,” Echeverria said. Boyd says if you see any mold growth, it’s time to discard it.