Does Vinegar Ever Really Go Bad?

If you’ve had a bottle of vinegar in your pantry for a few years, don’t worry.

Published Jan. 9, 2023.

I would be embarrassed to admit the number of jars, from chile crisp to bouillon base, that say “refrigerate after opening,” but I stubbornly store in my pantry after opening, reluctant to take up precious fridge space.

But there is one product I am proud to store in a cabinet perpetually: vinegar.

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Does Vinegar Go Bad?

Whether it’s a bottle of crystal-clear distilled white vinegar or cloudy apple cider vinegar with the “mother,” vinegar has a virtually indefinite shelf life thanks to its high level of acidity (above 4%).

Think about it—vinegars are often used to pickle and preserve a wide variety of vegetables and therefore, it’s inherently shelf-stable itself.

But while vinegars don’t go “bad”, they can slowly change in color and taste as volatile flavors evaporate. In our white wine vinegar tasting, we found that bottles that had changed in color a bit from oxidation (but were still within their use-by dates) didn’t taste significantly different from those that hadn’t yet oxidized. Distilled vinegar, which contains only small quantities of these volatile compounds, won’t change much. 

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However, unpasteurized raw vinegars (such as Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar) can evolve in color and flavor over time and cellulose particles of the mother may grow.

This is because “vinegar fermentation happens in the presence of oxygen and heat, so if you want to prevent the mother from forming in an open bottle you can place it in your fridge,” says Rodrigo Vargas, founder and CEO of American Vinegar Works. “But refrigeration of vinegar is not needed for food safety purposes.” 

If you find a gelatinous glob of mother unsightly or unappetizing, you can simply strain your vinegar with a fine-mesh strainer or coffee filter, but it isn’t harmful. 

How Should You Store Vinegar?

To preserve a consistent flavor profile, it’s not a bad idea to store your vinegar in a cool, dark place, such as the aforementioned cabinet, but it’s not necessary to put it in the fridge. Save that room for condiments that actually say “refrigerate after opening”, and I will reluctantly start following my own advice.

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