Vinegar Shelf Life and Safety

Dear AnswerLine, I found several jugs of unused vinegar in my pantry with old “Best By” dates on them. Can I safely use them for canning, pickling, and other general cooking? Does vinegar spoil or become less acidic over time? Should old vinegar be disposed of?

Vinegar bottles on a shelf at a retail outlet.
Vinegar bottles on a shelf at a retail outlet – Photo: mrgeiger

Almost Indefinite Shelf Life

Vinegar is a fermented product and has an “almost indefinite” shelf life according to the Vinegar Institute. “Because of its acid nature, vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time. Aesthetic changes such as color, haze, or sediment may be observed in other types of vinegars. Desite the observed changes, the product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence. The main component of vinegar, acetic acid, is relatively stable under the right conditions.

Because there are few organic compounds to cause random reactions affecting the quality of white distilled vinegar, StillTasty concurs that commercially prepared white distilled vinegar keeps indefinitely. Like white vinegar, commercially prepared cider, malt, balsamic, rice, wine, and flavored vinegars are also safe indefinitely. However, over time, the appearance and flavor of non-white vinegars may start to change. Most of these changes are harmless if the vinegar has been stored properly. Due to the changes that may take place, StillTasty recommends that these non-white vinegars are of best quality if used within 2-3 years of purchase. The “Best By” date is not a safety date, but rather the manufacturer’s estimate of how long the vinegar will remain at peak quality. The “Best By” date, by convention, for most manufacturers is two years from the production date. 

To maximize the shelf life of all vinegars, store them in a cool, dark cupboard away from direct heat or sunlight. Vinegar should only be stored in glass, plastic, or non-reactive containers. It is important that the lid is secured and replaced immediately after use to reduce the amount of oxygen coming in contact with the vinegar. The acidity of vinegar does not change unless moisture or water gets into the container.

Common and Harmless Changes in Vinegar

Cloudiness – Once opened and exposed to air, harmless “vinegar bacteria” may start to grow. This bacteria causes the vinegar to cloud. Cloudiness does not affect the quality of the vinegar or its flavor. Straining cloudy vinegar through a coffee filter may clear it.

Color – Red wine vinegar may become a pale red if sulfites are not added in the manufacturing processes. Other vinegars can change color by a process known as the Maillard reaction. Residual sugars and amino acids in many fruit vinegars may cause a browning over time similar to the browning of baked food. This reaction is long time (likely years) in coming. A change in color likely indicates a change in taste as well.

Sediment – Vinegars are usually filtered to make them clear. Those that are less filtered can form sediment over time as the particles settle. To deal with sediment, simply strain the vinegar through a coffee filter set inside a fine-mesh strainer before using it.

Mother – Most vinegars are pasteurized unless stated otherwise. When pasteurization is incomplete or the vinegar is re-inoculated with vinegar bacteria from the air after opening, a slimy, amorphous blob or substance will form and float near the bottom. This is a vinegar mother and is just bacteria that feeds on alcoholic liquids. If one develops, it simply means that there were some sugars or alcohol that weren’t completely fermented in the vinegar process. Mother can be strained out using a coffee filter.  Some look on a mother as something beneficial to health or to restart their own batch of vinegar.

Canning and Pickling

When considering vinegar for canning and pickling, it is always best to use fresh ingredients as they are very important to the process. If you start with good ingredients, your product will likely be successful. As previously stated, acetic acid is relatively stable so any vinegar with 5% acidity is safe to use regardless of age for canning and pickling. However, non-white vinegars may lose flavor so for that reason, fresh vinegar may be advisable. Also, if any vinegar is showing any of the harmless changes mentioned, it would be best to not use the vinegar for canning or pickling as such changes may cause unwanted darkening, cloudiness, off flavor, or sediment in the product. Further, should there be any sign of condensation in the container or the container was left open for a period of time, the vinegar could possibly be less than 5% acidic and therefore, should not be used for canning or pickling.

Past Its Prime – No Need to Toss

Contrary to “when in doubt, toss it out,” there is no need to toss out older vinegars. They are safe to use but may change over time. If the change is too bothersome for food preparation, vinegar past its prime can still be used for cleaning, weed control, fabric softening, and dying to name a few. There are a plethora of websites touting the many uses of vinegar. You may wish to begin with tips from the Vinegar Institute.

Source:

Vinegar Lore. The Vinegar Institute.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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72 thoughts on “Vinegar Shelf Life and Safety

  1. Hi Maxtron, the acidity of vinegar is slow to change when exposed to air so preparing for your experiment a day in advance should not affect the acidity. Due to food safety concerns, we want vinegar to be at its prime for pickling and canning; therefore, the recommendation to use fresh vinegar for those purposes.

  2. Is distilled vinegar safe to use after the “expiration” date on the package? Yes, provided it is properly stored and the package is undamaged — commercially packaged distilled white vinegar may carry a “Best By,” “Best if Used By,” “Best Before,” or “Best When Used By” date but this is not a safety date, it is the manufacturer’s estimate of how long the distilled white vinegar will remain at peak quality. Source: StillTasty.com

  3. Hi, The information in the blog is in regard to commercially prepared vinegar. Commercially prepared vinegar is standardized to at least 5% acetic acid or about pH 3 (read the label). The acidity of homemade vinegar varies greatly because of variation in characteristics of the starting ingredients. It could contain more or less acid. To assure a safe product when pickling or canning with vinegar, the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning recommends using vinegar of at least 5% acidity. Homemade vinegars should not be used in canning, preserving, or anything that is stored at room temperature. The vinegar’s acidity, or pH level, may not be sufficient to adequately preserve food and could result in food poisoning. Further, the pH level of homemade vinegar may weaken and allow pathogens, such as the deadly E. coli, to grow. Homemade vinegar is well suited for dressings, marinades, cooking, or pickled products that are stored in the refrigerator at all times.

  4. Hi Mohsen, Thank you for reaching out to AnswerLine. If the homemade vinegar has a high acidity—a pH of 2-3 like commercially prepared vinegar–it likely never go bad. It should remain safe to consume because it doesn’t spoil as other foods do. However, that doesn’t mean its shelf life is to infinity. Over time, due to storage conditions and oxidation, vinegar quality and flavor may change. Even if vinegar starts to lose its quality, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using it besides a slightly different taste and maybe some decolorization. For long term quality, pasterization or freezing is recommended.
    Unpasteurized raw vinegars are more prone to change in color and flavor over time and cellulose particles of the mother may grow. Mother, however, is harmless. Refrigerating vinegar will prevent or slow mother from forming but is not necessary 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.

  5. Vinegar is a self-preserving product due to its acid nature, so it does not need to be refrigerated. Store vinegar in a dark pantry with a well-sealed lid; eliminating air and light help with long-term preservation.

  6. I believe that the blog will answer all questions you might have regarding your find. If you have a specific question, please reach out again.

  7. To pickle jalapenos can I simple submerge them in 8% commercial food grade vinegar without heat treatment? Will the bugs survive?

  8. Hi Jay, thank you for reaching out to AnswerLine. It sounds like you want to pickle jalapenos without canning them. All pickled pepper products stored at room temperature must be processed (canned in a hot water bath), to avoid the risk of botulism toxin development during storage. Therefore, if you do not want to can them, the alternative is to make refrigerator pickled jalapenos which will keep for at least 6 months in the refrigerator if made correctly. 8% vinegar is very strong and is not approved for consumption because of impurities and the level of acidity. A brine of 5% vinegar and water is usually used along with a bit of salt; sometimes a small amount of sugar is added to helps control the spiciness. The mixture of vinegar and salt act as a natural preservative.
    Use the following procedure to prepare your jalapenos safely in the refrigerator:

    Wash peppers. Small peppers may be left whole with two small slits in each pepper. Core and cut large peppers into strips or rings.

    Sterilize jars. Pack peppers tightly into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.

    For each 6 cups of brine, combine 5 cups vinegar, 1 cup water and 1 tablespoon pickling salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer five minutes.

    Pour vinegar solution over peppers, leaving 1/8-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust headspace so that brine covers all peppers. Wipe rims.

    Place sterilized flats on jars. Do not put on bands. Allow jars to cool. Put on bands and wipe jars. Refrigerate six to eight weeks for the pickled flavor to fully develop. Keep refrigerated and use within six months. This pepper product allows the peppers to marinate in a high acid solution, at a cold temperature, and in the presence of air. These conditions are not favorable for botulism toxin formation. It does not ensure against other types of spoilage.
    https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/making-pickled-peppers-at-home-9-314/

  9. The shelf life of vinegar is indefinite when stored properly in a cool, dark place, away from heat and direct sunlight. However, its quality may degrade over time, but it remains safe to consume. As long as there are no signs of spoilage, such as mold, discoloration, or off odors, vinegar is safe to use.

  10. The shelf life of vinegar is indefinite when stored properly in a cool, dark place, away from heat and direct sunlight. However, its quality may degrade over time, but it remains safe to consume. .. thanks for shairing information best content and best articals
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  11. Thanks for this informative post! It’s great to know that vinegar has such a long shelf life and that aesthetic changes don’t affect its safety. Your tips on maximizing its shelf life and handling common changes like cloudiness and sediment are very helpful. I appreciate the advice on using fresh vinegar for canning and pickling to ensure the best flavor. It’s also good to learn about alternative uses for vinegar that’s past its prime. Thanks again for sharing!

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