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Does Vinegar Ever Go Bad or Expire?

There’s a half-open vinegar bottle sitting in your pantry. It’s expired for quite some time already, but it looks okay. Does vinegar ever go bad?

Or, let’s be real, you have three such bottles.

You bought each one with the best intentions of using them in cooking, used each in a recipe or two, and they sit in the back of the cupboard ever since.

Here’s the good news:

Vinegar doesn’t really expire or go bad. It lasts pretty much forever, assuming that you store it properly.

The worst that can really happen is that its quality might not be that great after a few years of storage. But in almost all cases, it will be safe to use, or at least test if its quality is still good enough.

And all of the above applies to pretty much all types of vinegar, including:

Few bottles of vinegar
Image used under Creative Commons from WordRidden

Want to learn a thing or two about the shelf life, spoilage, and storing vinegar?

If so, this article is for you. Read on.

Does Vinegar Go Bad or Expire?

Vinegar is a natural preservative with a pretty much indefinite shelf life. It’s highly acidic, and thanks to that, it stays safe to use for years.

But even though it doesn’t go bad in the usual meaning of the word, most kinds of vinegar lose quality over time. Except for the plain distilled vinegar, pretty much every other one suffers from gradual quality loss.

And that means that while your 5-year-old apple cider vinegar will most likely be safe to use, it might no longer taste good enough. And it’s up to you to decide if yours is still okay in terms of quality.

That said, the way vinegar looks in the bottle changes over time. And some of those changes might make you think that yours has gone bad. Rest assured, 99 out of 100 times, these changes are fine.

Let’s talk about how vinegar changes over time and what is okay and what is not.

Changes

Here’s a list of things that are normal for vinegar but might make you think it’s spoiled:

  • Sediment on the bottom of the bottle. Some vinegars are sold unfiltered (the label always informs about it), but the vast majority is filtered. That means there shouldn’t be any sediment in the bottle at the time of bottling. But even in a filtered vinegar, sediment might form if it’s stored long enough, and that’s okay. You can leave it be or filter it out using a coffee filter if it bothers you.
  • Cloudiness. Vinegar can become cloudy after being open for a prolonged period. Again, you can pour it through a coffee filter to make the liquid more clear.
  • Slight change of color. If you store your vinegar for a prolonged period, its color might change a bit, and that’s normal. While the liquid is still okay to use, a change of color usually means the taste alters as well. If yours have taken on a different tinge, check its flavor before using it.
  • Gross gel-like disc floating in the liquid. Or sometimes, when it’s only starting to form, a bunch of strands floating near the bottom. That’s the mother of vinegar, and it’s harmless. You can drink it, leave it be, or strain it using coffee filters or a cheesecloth. You can see something similar in kombucha (read my article on kombucha to see how that looks like). Some vinegars are sold with the mother on purpose (apple cider most often), but it might form even in a filtered vinegar. Again, it’s okay for it to be there – it only looks gross.

Knowing that, if something else about your vinegar has changed, and you’re not sure that the condiment is still safe to use, discard it. Better safe than sorry.

How Long Does Vinegar Last?

Vinegar is a self-preserving condiment, and its shelf life is pretty much indefinite. But besides white distilled vinegar, which stays good forever, other types retain good quality only for a limited period of about 2 to 5 years.

Those two to five years are only a very rough estimate, though, and there are many people with varying opinions on the topic. Plus, the better quality vinegar you buy, the longer it keeps quality.

In other words, giving an exact storage time for various types of vinegar is pretty much impossible. What’s pretty certain is that white distilled vinegar lasts basically forever, while the other types taste best for at least 2 to 3 years of bottling (often more) and stay safe for years.

(Those guidelines apply to the less popular varieties like sherry vinegar, honey vinegar, or beer vinegar too. Vinegar is vinegar.)

But many bottles of vinegar come with a printed date, you say. That’s true; let’s talk about those dates.

Expiration Date

Most vinegars come with a best-by date printed on the label. That date is about quality, not safety. So it’s not an expiration date by any means.

The printed date is the manufacturer saying how long they guarantee the product will keep top quality. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the quality will start to quickly degrade soon after. And in most cases, it stays just fine for even a couple more years.

In other words, relying on dates for vinegar storage doesn’t work particularly well.

Instead, rely on quality and taste: if the condiment is not good enough, toss it. And if you’re not sure if the flavor is there, use it in a marinade or anything else you use it for and check if it does its job. Simple, yet effective.

White distilled vinegar sometimes comes without a printed date. That’s okay, as it basically keeps forever.

Last, you might be wondering if opening a vinegar bottle changes anything about how long it lasts. Let’s talk about that.

After Opening

An open bottle of vinegar usually loses quality a bit faster than unopened vinegar, but the difference isn’t that big if you store your vinegar properly.

So if you have an out-of-date bottle of vinegar, you should still check if it’s okay to use, no matter if it’s unopened or not. Even if it’s half-empty, the remaining liquid is likely just fine.

How to Store Vinegar

Store vinegar in a cool and dry place, sealed tight. Both the pantry and the kitchen are perfectly fine, so go with what makes the most sense for you.

For storage, use the glass or plastic bottle that the condiment comes in (plastic bottles are popular for white distilled vinegar), and make sure you seal the cap well before you put the bottle back in storage.

Last but not least, there’s no need to refrigerate vinegar, but you can do that if you want to. It might keep the liquid’s flavor for a bit longer, but don’t expect miracles here.