Does Vinegar Last Forever?

Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee

Archeologists have found vinegar in Egypt that dates to around 3000 BC, so it might seem like the stuff could never spoil. But if you have a bottle of red wine vinegar that’s been lurking around in your cupboard for half a dozen years, it may not be what it once was.

Many people think vinegar is what’s implied by the word’s roots—sour wine, or in French, vin aigre. In reality, once all the alcohol in a bottle of wine has fermented into vinegar, what’s left, chemically speaking, is mostly water with a small percentage of acetic acid—within the 4%–8% range by volume, in the US.

Vinegar loses its luster way slower than most other foods, so it’s often hard to detect its deterioration—because in the same way vinegar preserves foods (e.g., pickles), it also acts as its own preservative. Bacteria can have a tough time growing in such an acidic environment, thus warding off decay. But vinegar will eventually change over time, losing vibrancy as its volatile compounds oxidize. Some vinegars are meant to age (see: balsamic, sherry, Chinkiang black vinegar), and to a certain degree, that can be part of those vinegars’ charms. In my experience, anything less concentrated (like vinegar made from apple cider, rice, wine, and beer) won’t fare as well over time. The pH scale measures how acidic (or basic) something is—the lower (or higher) the number is from a neutral midline of 7, the more inhospitable it generally is to bacteria and spoilage. Water is usually neutral, and vinegar typically ranges between 2 and 3.

But with all that acidity, can vinegar actually go bad? Chris Crawford, creator of Brooklyn-based Tart Vinegar, says an off bottle won’t have any real vinegar character: “It won’t have tartness, acid, it will taste bad, never any question. There’s no middle ground. I think people should trust their palates more than just an expiration date.”

How long does vinegar last, and where should you store it?

Crawford preaches that while most vinegars are pretty durable, certain bottlings should be stored with extra care. “There are some [unpasteurized] vinegars I do store in the fridge,” same with any “raw” vinegar with the mother still floating in it. “I’m not as concerned about another vinegar mother growing, but there is something about when it continues to ferment. It will deteriorate over time, and start to dull a little bit.”

Cole Pearsall, cofounder of experimental vinegar brand Acid League, says that “Fridge space is highly coveted in my house,” so he suggests storing vinegar bottles “in an area that doesn’t have fluctuating temperatures, and is dark—let’s just say a cupboard away from the oven. Heat typically increases chemical reactions.” Keeping unpasteurized vinegars at a cooler temp will slow down any further fermentation.

Katerina Mountanos, founder of Greek olive oil (and vinegar) company Kosterina, noticed the vigor of vinegar’s flavors can be muted by cold temperatures. “So don’t keep it in the garage in wintertime,” she says. The cold won’t harm the liquid, but it’s wise to bring it up to room temperature before using for maximum flavor.

Even the shortest-lasting vinegars have long shelf lives: Kosterina’s balsamic supplier tells Mountanos that their vinegar has a 10-year shelf life, but she marks their “best by” at three years—same for her crushed-fruit strawberry, tangerine, and blueberry vinegars—just to hedge bets.

The thing is, industrially made vinegar lasts much, much longer (that jug of distilled vinegar from the grocery store will keep pretty much forever) than the raw/unpasteurized stuff because there’s less biomaterial that can keep fermenting and potentially go bad. But the caveat is: You’re trading in nuance for time.

Why smaller bottles are better

The more air vinegar is exposed to over time, the more its overall acidity can drop, so you’re not really doing yourself any favors by buying that gallon jug—introducing oxygen every time it’s opened for a pour. So you’ll get the best out of your vinegar when you buy smaller bottles; Acid League’s vinegars are sold in 375-ml bottles so that customers won’t have them sitting around forever. In this smaller size, Pearsall says, “If you’re eating salad every night, using one to two tablespoons, you’ll go through [a bottle] in around three months.”

Wellspent Market in Portland, Oregon, carries at least a dozen different styles of vinegar at any time and half a dozen vinegars from a single producer: California’s Katz Farm, which makes wonderful wine grape, apple, and honey-inflected vinegars out of Napa and Suisun Valley. Wellspent’s founder Jim Dixon believes that acid is the most underutilized ingredient in the kitchen, and frankly, I agree. Dixon quips that he uses “more vinegar than lemon juice,” adding that, “if you taste something, and you think it needs something—other than salt—use acid to brighten it up.” I’ll add that vinegar’s versatility is unparalleled—it can serve as a palate enhancer and preservation method, a dressing that delivers contrast to otherwise bitter greens, and a marinade that penetrates meat deep within, unfurling taut proteins for a bigger, better, more flavorful taste experience.

When asked about storage, Dixon notes that his consumption is high: “I just keep mine in my cupboard. I know it can oxidize, but I don’t worry about it because I go through it so fast.” As should you.

Originally Appeared on Epicurious

More cooking tricks and tips from Epicurious