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When making hot sauce from scratch, it’s essential to follow the proper steps to make it safe for consumption, especially after being stored for long periods of time.
To make hot sauce shelf stable, follow proper preparation techniques, maintain the correct pH level, and sterilize the bottle for storage. When prepared, packaged, and stored correctly, hot sauce can last up to eight months in the refrigerator and over a year in dry storage.
While it’s cheaper and relatively easy to make your own hot sauce, keeping homemade condiments like hot sauce stable for long periods requires a bit of care and attention.
This article will discuss preparing your hot sauce to be shelf stable and last longer when in dry storage or the refrigerator.
1. Practice Safe Preparation of Ingredients
Always practice safety while preparing foods for storage. All fresh foods, like your fruits and vegetables, should be thoroughly washed before you use them. Even if the packaging states “prewashed and ready to consume,” you should still wash them. You’ll often read about contamination and recalls of prewashed produce, so always wash them once more at home before you use them.
Once you begin using a more complex recipe that includes fruits and vegetables to enhance the flavors, you run into more safety concerns. Adding fruits, vegetables, and some spices will also shorten the shelf life of your hot sauce, especially once the bottle has been opened.
Note: All opened bottles of hot sauce need to be stored in the refrigerator due to oxygen exposure and possible contamination, and slow deterioration from oxidation.
2. Utilize the Beneficial Properties of Vinegar and Peppers
Whether you plan to store your hot sauce in your pantry or in the fridge, you’ll want to add preservatives to increase its shelf life. Most major name brand hot sauces bottle their hot sauce with additives that aren’t natural but serve to preserve the product for a longer shelf life. However, you don’t have to add unnecessary preservatives to your hot sauce to make it shelf stable.
The main ingredients of hot sauce are spicy peppers and vinegar, which add flavor to your hot sauce but can also help to make it shelf stable.
The Benefits of Peppers and Vinegar
Hot sauce recipes range from simple to complex, depending on the ingredients used. However, the main components of hot sauce are your preferred peppers and vinegar. Both of these ingredients are considered natural preservatives and extend the shelf life of your hot sauce when appropriately prepared.
Peppers contain capsaicin, which is not only the chemical that packs the punch of spiciness but also helps prevent bacterial growth while the condiment is being stored.
Note: It’s highly recommended to use gloves when handling and preparing the peppers. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself playing with fire. At least, that’s what it will feel like when you inadvertently touch your face, rub your eye, or other sensitive body parts after handling some spicy peppers!
Vinegar helps prevent your sauce from oxidizing during storage. Oxidization, or enzymatic browning, occurs when foods start to get old and begin to turn brown. The flavor will decrease, the color of your hot sauce will darken, and the sauce may start to separate. Adding something acidic, such as vinegar and lemon juice, to your dish or hot sauce can help delay the process of oxidization. Adding the acid essentially lowers the pH levels of the hot sauce, which helps to delay and prevent oxidization.
Refrigerating your hot sauce once it’s been opened will preserve it longer and prevent bacteria growth.
3. Test and Obtain the Proper pH Level
Bacterial growth and contamination are a big concern when preparing food for storage. So, it’s vital to correctly prepare the hot sauce and achieve the proper pH level to prevent sickness from bacterial growth. Bacteria have difficulty growing when the pH level is less than 4.6, so your hot sauce pH needs to be less than that.
Invest in a pH tester when preparing certain foods, like hot sauce, to achieve the right pH level to make it shelf-stable. I personally like Hanna Instruments HI98103 (link goes to Amazon) because it has a narrow testing area that makes it easier to test hot sauces that have already been bottled.
The Correct pH Level for Shelf Stable Hot Sauce
The pH level for hot sauce should be between 2.7 to 3.7, depending on the type, to be considered shelf-stable per this USDA guideline.
Add additional vinegar to decrease the pH level to make the hot sauce more shelf stable and reduce the risk of toxicity from bacterial growth. Lemon juice is also used to lower the pH level, increasing the hot sauce’s acidity.
If you’ve tested your pH level and it’s higher than 4.0, you can blend in about a tablespoon (about 15 mL) of vinegar at a time until the desired pH level is reached.
Why the pH Level is Crucial When Storing Food
It’s essential to properly prepare the hot sauce and ensure the pH level is safe to prevent bacteria growth and spores from creating the toxicity that leads to botulism. Botulism is a severe illness from toxins produced by the spores of bacterial growth in stored food.
While it’s considered rare, the toxicity can cause death if the exposed person doesn’t seek medical attention immediately.
That is why proper preparation, the correct pH level, and sterilizing storage containers are crucial steps in preparing food for safe and extended storage.
Clostridium botulinum is the bacteria that commonly cause toxicity, but sometimes Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii can also be culprits.
Under the right conditions, these bacteria spores can grow and create one of the most lethal toxins.
Growing conditions that cause the bacteria spores to grow and create toxins are the following:
- Low or no oxygen (anaerobic conditions)
- Warm Temperature (randing from 40°F – 120°F / 4°C and 49°C)
- Low acid
- Low salt
- Low sugar
- Water (of a certain amount)
Boiling foods in preparation for storage will kill the active bacterial growth.
Typically, you’ll boil and then simmer the sauce in hot sauce recipes. Boiling the hot sauce before canning isn’t just helpful to activate the flavor of the ingredients, but it’s also killing off any bacteria present before canning or bottling.
4. Sterilize Bottles and Canning Supplies
Sterilizing your supplies will substantially reduce the risk of contamination and bacterial growth that causes health issues and lessens shelf life. To sterilize your bottles and/or jars, follow these steps:
- Place the jars or bottles right side up on a rack in a pot or boiling water canner.
- Add hot water around and inside the jar to about 1 inch (2.5 cms) above the jar or bottle.
- Altitude plays a part in canning, so you’ll want to boil for 10 minutes at 1,000 ft (304.8 ms) or less. Add an additional minute for higher elevations for each additional 1,000 ft (304.8 m).
- Remove one bottle at a time with sterile tongs and drain.
- Once dry, you can now fill the jars with hot sauce and tighten the lids.
If you’re storing your hot sauce in woozy bottles (standard hot sauce bottles):
To preserve hot sauce in a bottle, pour it into woozy bottles or other glass containers while still hot (140-180°F or 60-82°C) and then place the containers upside down and let them cool.
The hot temperature of the sauce helps with pasteurization and placing the bottles inverted allows the liquid to sterilize the lids. Make sure to leave a little head space on the top of the bottle.
You can also boil the bottles in hot water for ten minutes to prevent further fermentation. Put the jars in a pot filled with boiling water (220°F or 104°C), keeping them a few inches apart. Make sure the bottles are fully submerged. Remove the bottles and let them cool.
Seal your bottles properly. You can use induction sealers for sealing bottles. There are also cap liners that prevent your hot sauce from leaking. These Advanced Girl Seals Cap Liners, available on Amazon, are an excellent choice. They’re pressure sensitive, so they’re more effective than regular caps. Plus, they stick very well to both plastic and glass jars.
If you’re storing your hot sauce in jars:
The old guidelines for canning require boiling or simmering the lids before using them for canning. However, it is now said washing them before use is sufficient, and heating the lids is not required to obtain a good seal while canning.
Once you have tightened the lids, the heat from the boiled hot sauce will tightly seal your lid to the jar. To check the seal, use your finger to press the middle of the top of the lid. If it doesn’t move, the seal is good, but if it makes a popping sound or moves under the pressure of your finger, it’s not sealed correctly and will not last as long when stored.
Improperly sealed hot sauce can deteriorate rapidly, become rancid, and is not shelf stable for long-term storage.
Make sure to check out our step-by-step guide on how to bottle hot sauce for more details.
5. The Shelf Life Expectancy of Hot Sauce
If your hot sauce has the correct pH range and the bottle has been properly sterilized, your hot sauce should last between six to eight months in the refrigerator and one to three years in the pantry or cellar.
Optimizing Shelf Life With Ideal Storage Conditions
The conditions in which you store your hot sauce will significantly affect its longevity while being stored.
To achieve maximum shelf life when dry storing hot sauce, you’ll need to ensure the storage area provides the following ideal storage conditions:
- Temperatures lower than 50°F (10°C)
- Dry location
- No sunlight
- Good ventilation
- Humidity control
- Clean conditions
- No food on the floor or against the walls
To optimize the shelf life of hot sauce stored in the refrigerator, provide the following storage conditions:
- Maintain the temperature range of 32° to 40°F (0° to 4.4°C). You can test and establish the right temperature by placing a thermometer in a glass of water in the center of the refrigerator and checking it after five to eight hours. Tweak the temperature control if the above temperature is not met and check again after five more hours.
- Check the door seals and ensure they close tightly to maintain the correct temperature inside.
- Mount a thermometer to easily monitor the temperature.
Fluctuating temperatures in the refrigerator or dry storage area will cause food to deteriorate more quickly.
Bacteria can still grow in foods stored in the refrigerator. The “danger zone” of bacteria growth is between 40° and 140°F (4° and 60°C). When bacteria are growing in these temperature conditions, they can double in number within 20 minutes.
So, it’s a good idea to have a working thermometer visible in stored food areas. You should check it often to ensure the proper temperatures are maintained to keep the integrity of the food being stored. If you notice a temperature change, ensure everything is in working order (ventilation, seals, etc.).
Signs Your Hot Sauce Has Gone Bad or Spoiled
No matter how well you store your hot sauce, at some point it can still go bad if it is not consumed in a timely manner. The following are signs that your hot sauce is going bad and that it needs to be discarded:
- Foul or “off” odor
- Discoloration (darker)
- Separation of ingredients
- Black dots (indicative of mold growth)
- Decreased quality in taste
While all of these signs can occur when your hot sauce has gone bad, discoloration and the pungency will typically change during long-term storage and, alone, does not mean the hot sauce is bad.
As peppers age, they become darker, and it’s common to see the color of hot sauce darken when it’s been stored over a long period.
The risk of spoilage and contamination is high if the container is damaged. It’s always best practice to thoroughly inspect the food container and food before consuming, especially after it’s been stored over a long period of time.