Why Apple Cider Vinegar Doesn’t Go Bad: Acetic Acid

You know the type.

They carefully check every bottle, can and package they buy at the store, looking for the expiration date. On fresh foods, they religiously look for the “sell by” date. And they regularly go though the refrigerator, the pantry and the cabinets, on a search and destroy mission to find and toss any product that’s “expired” – at least, according to the date on the label.

That may be you, but most of us only throw things out when they’re obviously spoiled. We may also discard a few items if we happen to notice that they’re well past their expiration date. Otherwise, we pretty much disregard that tiny printed date on the package.

For some products, it doesn’t really matter. We use them so quickly that they’re never in danger of spoiling. But there are also those items which sit on the back of the shelf for months or years before we need them – and when it’s finally time to pull them out, we hold our breath until we open them and see whether they look or smell bad.

The two kinds of people who use apple cider vinegar fall neatly into those two categories. Those who consume ACV regularly (or even daily) for its health benefits, or because they think it will help with weight loss, will probably use up a bottle well before its expiration date. Everyone else just uses their stored container of apple cider vinegar once in a while, when a recipe calls for it or when it’s time to do some pickling.

The latter are the people who are most likely to wonder, as they stare at their dust-covered bottle of ACV, “Does apple cider vinegar go bad?”

They (and you) can rest easy. When stored properly, apple cider vinegar lasts virtually forever.

The Shelf Life of Apple Cider Vinegar

The vinegar manufacturers who make and bottle ACV put a “best before” date on the bottle, but only because the U.S. government requires it. That label doesn’t mean, however, that you have to toss the vinegar once that date has passed.

Apple cider vinegar is what the Vinegar Institute calls self-preserving because of its acidic nature. Acetic acid (ACV’s primary active ingredient) creates a high pH environment in which microbes, including bacteria, aren’t able to grow. (By contrast, apple juice will go bad within a couple of months of its expiration date.) That’s why vinegar doesn’t contain preservatives. It is a preservative.

That’s not just only true for ACV. Nearly all types of vinegar – including the ones most often used in the kitchen like balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar – have an indefinite shelf life because of the acid that’s produced during the fermentation process. The same goes for white vinegar, usually fermented from ethanol.

The acidity of vinegar protects it against the most common food contaminants, and if you store vinegar properly and seal the bottle tightly, it will be pretty much protected against everything else. More about that shortly.

Just because apple cider vinegar hasn’t gone bad, though, that doesn’t mean it’s as good as it was when you first bought it.

What Happens to Apple Cider Vinegar over Time

There’s actually a good reason to pay attention to the date that manufacturers have to put on their vinegar bottles. Over an extended period of time, vinegar (and vinegar products) can lose some of its taste and some of the benefits it provides for your health.

In most cases, that happens because a bottle of vinegar hasn’t been sealed completely or stored properly. When outside air is able to get into a bottle of apple cider vinegar, water condensed in the air will eventually become mixed with the vinegar. That, in turn, weakens the acetic acid that gives ACV its trademark flavor and most of its health benefits.

One other issue can develop with improper storage. If a contaminant gets inside the bottle but settles on the inside of the cap, or inside of the bottle above the level of the vinegar, it won’t be completely surrounded by an acidic environment – so that mold or bacteria won’t be killed by the acid in the vinegar and the bottle can go bad.

Also important: store apple cider vinegar in a dark place away from direct sunlight, preferably at room temperature, since light and heat can speed decomposition of the acetic acid. It may be tempting to keep ACV above the kitchen counter with your other condiments, so it’s close by when you’re making salad dressing or marinades. But a pantry far from the stove is a better choice.

If your vinegar is starting to lose its effectiveness or taste, it often shows visual signs; the color and clarity of ACV will change if those chemical alterations are occurring. Another sign will be a change in aroma or taste.

Don’t jump to conclusions, though. If you see strings, floating particles or even a slimy disc floating in your vinegar, or if you see sediment gathering at the bottom of the bottle, that’s not a sign that your ACV has spoiled. That’s just what’s called the “mother” which is created as raw vinegar ferments, and is responsible for some of the vinegar’s many health benefits.

The mother is fine to consume, but you can certainly strain it out if its texture bothers you. You can also refrigerate the vinegar to slow the mother from congealing, but colder temperatures will actually induce changes in its flavor. Unless the mother issue (no pun intended) is particularly bothersome to you, ACV should not be refrigerated.

In short, apple cider vinegar’s shelf life is indefinite – but it won’t retain its best qualities forever. Every once in a while, it may be time to hit Amazon for a new bottle of Bragg ACV.