Is relish OK if not refrigerated?

Quick Answer

Relish that has not been continuously refrigerated can be unsafe to eat and should be discarded. Relish is a perishable food that requires refrigeration to slow bacteria growth. Leaving relish unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours allows bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella to multiply quickly to dangerous levels that can cause foodborne illness. Even if relish still smells and tastes normal, harmful bacteria may be present. When in doubt, throw relish out if it has sat at room temperature beyond the safe 2-hour limit. Refrigerating relish promptly is key for food safety.

What is Relish?

Relish is a condiment typically made from chopped pickled cucumbers and vegetables that have been preserved in a mixture of vinegar, salt, and spices. The tangy, salty, and savory relish adds flavor to foods like hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches, and more. Popular varieties of relish include dill pickle relish, sweet pickle relish, and hot dog relish.

Relish has a high moisture content and is not shelf-stable. It requires continuous refrigeration at 40°F or below after opening to prevent bacteria growth and spoilage. An unopened jar of relish may be shelf-stable due to the heat processing used when producing and sealing relish in jars. However, refrigeration is still recommended by the FDA even for unopened relish to maintain best quality.

Is Relish Potentially Hazardous?

Yes, relish is considered a potentially hazardous food because it contains characteristics that allow rapid bacteria growth. Potentially hazardous foods include:

– High protein foods like meat, eggs, dairy
– Moist foods with a water activity level above 0.85
– Neutral or slightly acidic foods around pH levels of 4.6-7.5

Relish fits the criteria of a moist, neutral pH food. Its high moisture content and lack of acidity create an environment where bacteria can thrive if given the chance to multiply. This makes prompt and consistent refrigeration imperative for safe storage of relish.

Why Refrigeration is Critical for Relish

Refrigerating relish is the only way to prevent the rapid growth of dangerous bacteria. Cold temperatures slow the proliferation of pathogens that cause foodborne illness. Refrigeration does not destroy pathogens already present but helps maintain relish below the “danger zone” temperature range of 40-140°F where bacteria grows fastest.

Some of the bacteria of top concern in perishable foods like relish include:

Salmonella – Causes salmonellosis, with symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.

E. coli – Causes severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Some strains are life-threatening.

Listeria monocytogenes – Causes listeriosis which can be fatal in high risk groups like pregnant women and the elderly.

Staphylococcus aureus – Causes food poisoning with violent vomiting and diarrhea.

These pathogens can quickly multiply to infectious doses in relish and other moist foods left unrefrigerated for too long. Refrigerating relish below 40°F puts bacteria in a dormant state and reduces the chances of foodborne sickness.

How Long Can Relish Sit Out?

The general food safety recommendation is to not let any perishable foods like relish sit at room temperature longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour if temperatures are above 90°F. Within this short window, pathogens may start slowly multiplying but have not usually grown to hazardous levels in most cases.

Beyond 2 hours, bacteria can grow exponentially. A rule of thumb is perishable foods left between 40°F and 140°F should not exceed 4 hours total time at this “danger zone” temperature range. After 4 hours, dangerous bacteria levels may be present.

Note these recommended time limits are cumulative, not consecutive. For example:

– Leaving relish on a picnic table for 1 hour.
– Putting relish back in a cooler, then taking it out 1 hour later.
– Total unrefrigerated time is 2 hours (1 hour + 1 hour)

In this scenario, the relish should be discarded after sitting out for 2 cumulative hours. Splitting up the time into segments does not “reset the clock”.

What Happens if You Eat Relish Left Out Too Long?

Consuming relish that has sat unrefrigerated for longer than 2 hours comes with a high risk of food poisoning. The longer relish is left out past the recommended time limit, the greater the chances of dangerous bacteria growth.

Eating relish contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria can cause severe illness with symptoms like:

– Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea
– Fever, headache, muscle aches
– In severe cases: paralysis, meningitis, kidney failure

Groups at higher risk for severe, even fatal effects of foodborne illness include young children, elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems. But even healthy individuals can experience adverse reactions from eating relish left out too long. Always err on the side of caution and throw away refrigerated foods if in doubt about their safety.

Does Relish Last Longer in the Fridge?

Yes, proper refrigeration prolongs the shelf life of relish significantly. The ideal fridge temperature for perishables is 40°F or below. Here are some guidelines for refrigerated storage times:

Unopened relish: About 1 year past printed “best by” date.

Opened relish: About 1-2 months. Store in a covered container to help retain moisture and prevent contamination.

These timelines can vary based on ingredients and acidity level. For example, sweet relish may last 2-3 months while hot dog relish keeps 1 month after opening due to added sugars and vinegar as preservatives.

If kept continuously refrigerated, relish can last much longer safely compared to room temperature. But once opened, stick to the 1-2 month limit for best quality and follow “sniff” and visual tests to check for spoilage. Discard if mold, yeast growth, or foul odors develop.

Can You Put Relish Back in the Fridge After Leaving Out?

The USDA does not recommend putting relish back in the refrigerator after it has been left out of temperature control for longer than 2 hours. Bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus can produce toxins that are not destroyed through refrigeration or reheating. Even if relish looks and smells normal, toxins may persist. Play it safe and throw away relish left out more than 2 cumulative hours.

In some cases, relish may be safely refrigerated again if within the 2-hour window, such as being left out for only 1 hour on a kitchen counter. But the 2-hour rule should be followed stringently for vulnerable populations like young children, pregnant women, elderly, and those with immunity issues. When unsure, remember the old adage “If in doubt, throw it out.”

Can You Freeze Relish to Make it Last Longer?

Freezing relish can extend its shelf life for 6-12 months past the printed “best by” date. Here are some freezing tips for relish:

– Leave at least 1⁄2 inch headspace in containers, as relish will expand during freezing.

– Use plastic freezer containers or freezer bags designed for cold temperatures.

– Label packages with name and freeze date.

– Freeze relish within 2 hours of opening jar for best quality.

– Once thawed in fridge, use relish within one week. Do not refreeze.

Freezing stops bacteria growth that causes spoilage and foodborne illness. Thoroughly thawing relish in the refrigerator preserves texture and flavor. But always rely on refrigeration as the primary storage method once relish is opened. Do not store opened relish at room temperature if not freezing.

Can You Make Homemade Refrigerator Relish?

Yes, you can prepare refrigerator relish at home using fresh ingredients like chopped cucumbers, onions, peppers and a vinegar brine. Refrigerator relish has a shorter shelf life compared to traditional processed versions, but offers a fresher flavor. Follow these tips for homemade refrigerator relish:

– Use boiling water to sterilize jars before packing relish into containers.

– Only use freshly washed produce, trimmed of any damaged or bruised areas.

– Wear clean gloves when handling ingredients.

– Rinse all produce thoroughly under cold running water before chopping.

– Work quickly and refrigerate finished relish within 2 hours.

– Refrigerate for at least 24 hours before sampling to allow flavors to meld.

– Store homemade relish up to 3 weeks in a covered container in the fridge.

– Discard moldy or slimy relish. Do not taste or sample to determine safety.

With proper sanitation methods and continuous refrigeration, homemade relish can offer a tasty alternative to store-bought with full control over ingredients. But be diligent with food safety practices when preparing any perishable item at home.

How to Tell if Relish Has Gone Bad?

Watch for these signs that refrigerated relish has spoiled and should be discarded:

– Mold or yeast growth – mycotoxins can cause illness. Discard entire container.

– Slimy texture – bacteria breaking down relish.

– Discoloration – pigment changes indicate spoilage.

– Unpleasant or “off” odors.

– Fermented smell like alcohol or vinegar – yeast or bacteria.

– Spurting liquid when container opened – gas from bacteria.

– Weeping liquid in jar – enzymes breaking down relish.

– Soft or mushy consistency vs. crispy vegetable texture.

Do not taste relish to determine if it has spoiled. Pathogens can be present even if relish smells and looks normal. When refrigerated relish shows any signs of spoilage, play it safe and throw it away.

How to Store Relish Safely

Here are some tips for safe relish storage and handling:

– Refrigerate unopened relish at 40°F or below for shelf life up to 1 year past “best by” date.

– Refrigerate opened relish in a covered container for 1-2 months.

– Never leave unsealed relish containers in fridge – always cover.

– Keep relish away from raw meats in fridge to avoid cross-contamination.

– Avoid introducing bacteria – use clean utensils each time.

– Do not let relish sit out for more than 2 cumulative hours.

– Freeze for extended storage up to 1 year; keep thawed relish refrigerated.

– Check for signs of spoilage before eating – discard at first signs.

– Adhere to all expiration or “use by” dates.

Following proper storage methods and food handling practices will keep refrigerated relish safe to enjoy. Discard promptly when expired or if quality is in doubt.


Relish requires consistent refrigeration at 40°F or below for food safety. The moist, low acid ingredients provide ideal conditions for pathogenic bacteria growth if left unrefrigerated for longer than 2 hours. Eating relish contaminated with toxins can cause severe illness. Refrigeration cannot undo bacterial growth that occurs when perishable foods are left out too long. Always err on the side of caution and discard questionable relish. With proper refrigerated storage and handling, relish can be a tasty addition to meals for 1-2 months after opening. Following sound food safety principles for relish and other perishable items can prevent foodborne illness.

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