A friend of mine just called me to find out if it’s okay to use the hot sauce he found in the back of his pantry. He had bought it about 5 years ago on a trip to Mexico, and it doesn’t have a “Best By” date on the bottle. If he eats it, will he get sick? Will it taste the same? He thought the color looked a little off, but it’s been so long now that he can’t really remember what it looked like in the first place! So he called me for help.To figure out what he should do, I asked him a few questions:
Was the bottle ever opened, or is it still sealed?
An unopened bottle could potentially still be okay after 5 years (although it may not taste exactly the same—but we’ll get to that in a minute). An opened bottle is a little trickier. Some hot sauces have an ingredient that requires refrigeration after you open the bottle. If it says, “Refrigerate after opening” right on the bottle, but he didn’t refrigerate it over the past 5 years, he would have to toss it.
Note that some people refrigerate their hot sauces after opening whether the bottle says to or not. This is personal preference. If it doesn’t specifically say so right on the bottle, then you don’t have to refrigerate it. Most hot sauces don’t actually require refrigeration after opening, but I put mine in the fridge anyway. Again, it’s just personal preference in that case.
Is there garlic in the sauce?
If the hot sauce darkened a bit over time, that’s related to oxidation. That doesn’t make it hazardous to eat, but it might make it look a little less appealing. Garlic tends to oxidize much more rapidly, so a sauce with garlic would tend to darken more rapidly. It’s just like with fruits: If you cut an apple, it’ll oxidize much faster and darken. A sauce with garlic that has darkened wouldn’t necessarily make him sick, but it probably won’t taste the same either.
How much vinegar is in the sauce?
Peppers themselves are acidic, and that acidity will help preserve it. Vinegar is acidic, too, so a sauce with more vinegar will also last longer. Say that you have a salad and you put a little lemon juice in there, which keeps things from oxidizing. The bits of apple on your salad would not go dark as quickly because of the ascorbic acid from the lemon juice. So a hot sauce with more vinegar or ascorbic acid also wouldn’t darken as quickly as one without.
Hot sauce made by some manufacturers, such as Marie Sharp’s, doesn’t tend to oxidize as quickly because they’ve got enough ascorbic acid in there to help keep it from oxidizing. If you keep one of their sauces, it will not darken in literally several years.
For my friend, we determined that the hot sauce wouldn’t make him sick because it didn’t require refrigeration, so he tried it. It had darkened over time. He told me that the sauce had lost all of its heat and flavor, and he wound up chucking the bottle. I’d say the lesson here is, “Don’t let your hot sauce go to waste!” If you’re a real chilihead, you’re probably going through hot sauces every couple of weeks, so no problem. But if you have a collection of hot sauces in your cabinet or fridge that you use for different recipes, just check the expiration dates each month and try to use up your bottles before they expire. Hot sauce is a terrible thing to waste.