Whether you’re the kind of person who dabs a little hot sauce on a dish every now and then, or you’re more of the mindset that food is a vehicle for your hot sauce, you’ve probably found a bottle with an expired “best by” in the back of the fridge while looking for a midnight snack, or hiding away in the back of a cabinet during a deep clean.

It’s time to chuck it, right? I mean, it’s expired. 

Not so fast! While we can’t recommend ever eating anything past its “use by” date without investigating for signs of spoilage, “best by” dates aren’t expiration dates, and there’s a good chance your bonus bottle of hot sauce is still perfectly safe to eat.

Does Hot Sauce Spoil?

In a word, yes. Almost all food spoils. The big exception to that rule is, famously, honey, which was found still safe to eat in ancient Egyptian tombs. 

Though almost all food eventually spoils, different foods spoil at different rates. How quickly it spoils depends on a lot of factors, including how it’s kept. The organic blueberries from the local Farmers Market aren’t going to last as long as that can of creamed corn, which might outlive us all. 

How Long Does Hot Sauce Last?

Different kinds of hot sauce are going to spoil at very different rates. In general, any hot sauce will have a pretty decent shelf life. That’s because most contain vinegar and chili peppers as essential ingredients. It’s safe to say that an opened bottle of vinegar-based hot sauce could last three-to-five years if its refrigerated, and unopened could last even longer.

You might already know that vinegar has a pretty stellar shelf life, even just sitting in a cabinet. So it makes sense that its inclusion in a hot sauce would prolong its life. But the capsaicin in chili peppers keeps bacteria at bay as well, which means hot sauce will be shelf-stable longer than, say, a béchamel sauce. 

This changes a little when you add fruits (like tomatoes) and vegetables to your hot sauce mix. The vinegar and chili peppers will help it keep longer, but those elements are eventually going to spoil. And if your hot sauce does have those elements, we highly recommend refrigerating it so you can enjoy it longer. 

A hot sauce with fruits and vegetables (like Secret Aardvark) probably isn’t going to last for centuries in a pharaoh’s tomb, but something that’s essentially vinegar and chili peppers seriously might. 

How Do You Keep Your Hot Sauce Fresh?

Even with hot sauces that contain fruits and vegetables, there’s a lot you can do to keep your hot sauce from spoiling, including refrigerating it, keeping the cap clean, and minimizing its direct contact with food. 

Refrigerate Your Hot Sauce

A lot of hot sauces boast that you don’t need to refrigerate them after opening. That’s true! If you consume a bottle within a few months of opening it, you can keep it right on the table. But you might want to consider refrigerating it anyway. There are some folks who think that refrigerating a hot sauce will kill the flavor, but even Frank’s RedHot’s website FAQs state that keeping the sauce chilled will keep it fresher for longer. 

If you’re set against refrigerating your sauce for any reason (hey, we don’t judge), be sure to keep it in a cool, dark place. If you keep it out in the open directly next to your oven, right under a window that gets that good morning light, you’re exposing your hot sauce to a ton of light and heat. And while “light” and “hot” are great qualities for a hot sauce to have, they’re terrible things to expose your hot sauce to. 

Clean Your Caps

The crusty junk on a hot sauce lid isn’t just nasty to look at – it could shorten the shelf life of your sauce. Bacteria is more likely to grow there, since it’s more exposed to both air and food. Simply rinsing the cap after you use your hot sauce should do the trick, but you might need to take a clean, wet sponge to messier caps. 

Don’t Dip

Yes, hot sauce is amazing. Yes, we want to coat our food with it. But we highly recommend never dipping food directly into a bottle of hot sauce. The foods we’re most likely to dip in hot sauce (like chicken wings) will spoil more quickly than hot sauce and could contaminate the whole batch. And we’re not even going to get into the double dipping debate (we think the science is in on that one).

What Happens to Older Hot Sauce?

While it depends on how you keep it, hot sauce flavor will change as it gets older, but probably not in the way you’d expect. 

First things first, there’s a reason it’s a “best by” date. If you consume your hot sauce before that date, you’re getting the flavor that the makers of that hot sauce had in mind when they tirelessly tested recipes to make the perfect hot sauce. 

But that’s not to say older hot sauce is bad or is literally weak sauce. If you still like the taste after the “best by” date, eat it without remorse! Just know that your sauce could actually get hotter as the chilies within it age. 

One quick tip: shake up your bottle of hot sauce if it’s a little older. Things can settle at the bottom that you’ll want mixed around, and a good shake could revitalize the bottle and bring flavors back to life. 

How Can You Tell If Hot Sauce is Bad?

Use your senses! Namely, use sight, smell, and (if the first two go well) taste to tell if your hot sauce is still safe to consume. 

We’ll start with sight. If your older bottle of hot sauce is darker than a fresh bottle, that’s completely safe and normal. Chili peppers tend to darken as they age, as does garlic (which is found in many hot sauces). 

What you’re looking for to tell if there’s spoilage are little black dots that weren’t there before. Normal black dots could be something as simple as pepper, but if they’re new to you, they might be mold. This mold isn’t incredibly bad for you, but you want to take off the lid and dump the bottle. We don’t recommend just tossing the bottle in the trash, because mold growth can create gas that can cause the bottle (or in our case, the cap) to pop. 

If it passes the sight test, give it a sniff. But what are you smelling for? Anything that makes you go “blurg.” Just trust your instincts here – humans evolved to be put off of smells that might make them sick if they consume the source of the stink. 

Lastly, take a little taste! At this point, it’s pretty unlikely that your hot sauce has spoiled, so you’re checking to see if you still dig the flavor. 

And truthfully, if you’re eating hot sauce that’s too old, all you’re typically consuming is a little bad yeast or mold. You certainly don’t WANT to consume that, and it could give you an upset stomach, but it’s most likely to just cause an imperfect taste with no long-term damage. 

How Long Does Secret Aardvark Hot Sauce Last?

Thanks for asking! Since Secret Aardvark is made with fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and carrots, we recommend refrigerating after opening and consuming within three months. That’s the time period during which you’ll get the full flavor we aim for, and you won’t have to worry about mold (unless you’re dipping food directly into it, which we seriously don’t recommend).