To refrigerate, or not to refrigerate? That is the question. Most people assume all condiments should be refrigerated after opening. So, what about hot sauce? The quick answer is: it depends.
Follow This Basic Rule
While most hot sauce is fairly shelf-stable due to the highly acidic environment created by the vinegar and relatively high salt content, a sauce's stability really depends on the pH level. But, unless you're carrying around a pH Meter like this one, you'll need some easier rules to follow.
As a general rule, if your hot sauce has vegetables, eggs or fruits in it (like Jalapeno & Green Apple Hot Sauce), refrigerate after opening. However, hot sauces with only chile peppers, salt, vinegar, garlic, xanthan gum and preservatives (like Cholula Original Hot Sauce) can be stored in a cool, dry place (like a kitchen pantry). Hot sauces you do not refrigerate generally have a 3-year shelf life. You may notice un-refrigerated hot sauces’ color may darken over time--that’s not a bad thing. On the other hand, if you store one of these hot sauces in a refrigerator, its flavor will weaken as time passes.
Read (and Heed) the Label
Many hot sauce bottles have instructions on their bottles. But if they don’t, follow the above rules and you’ll be in good shape. As always, use common sense. If you smell your hot sauce and it has a funky odor, throw it out. If you look at it and it has some mold, remember mole and mold are not the same things--get rid of moldy hot sauce. If the bottle has an expiration date, it’s more than likely referring to when the ingredients begin to lose their potency. But, when in doubt, throw it out.
What if your hot sauce is unopened? Unless you’re some kind of rare hot sauce collector, we highly recommend actually using it up, getting the last sweat-inducing drop out after you’ve balanced the bottle upside down. However, if you have an unopened bottle of the sauce, it can last over three years. In that case, something else may occur: flavor could change. The peppers can even get hotter, so proceed at your own risk.
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It’s a good idea to approach hot sauce storage decisions on a case-by-case basis. Just make sure to consider the variables discussed above. It’s our opinion that just about any meal can be enhanced with hot sauce, so remember to always use condiments.