What happens if you use old vinegar?

Quick Answers

Using old vinegar is generally safe, but it may lose some freshness and flavor. Vinegar has a very long shelf life and may remain usable for several years after the printed expiration date. However, very old vinegar can start to grow mold or bacteria, making it unsuitable for consumption. The worst that is likely to happen if you use old vinegar is reduced quality or taste.

Does vinegar expire or go bad?

Vinegar has an exceptionally long shelf life compared to many other pantry staples. An unopened bottle of distilled white vinegar can remain usable for up to 2 years past its printed expiration date or about 3-5 years after the purchase date. Wine vinegars and balsamic vinegar may start to develop sediment and lose some freshness after 1-2 years opened. Cider and fruit-infused vinegars have a slightly shorter shelf life around 1 year opened.

So in most cases, vinegar does not truly expire or go bad in the sense of becoming unsafe to ingest. However, very old vinegars may start to lose their acidic bite and develop off-flavors, sediments, cloudiness or signs of mold/bacteria growth indicating they are past their prime. Any odd changes in appearance, texture, smell or taste are signs your vinegar should be discarded.

How can you tell if vinegar is bad?

Here are some signs that an opened bottle of vinegar has gone bad and should not be used:

  • Visible mold/fuzz has developed inside the bottle
  • Cloudiness, haziness or sediment has formed
  • Off smells like rancidity or rotten eggs
  • Strange colors have developed
  • An unpleasant or sharp smell unlike typical vinegar
  • Flat, muted flavor lacking acidity

An unopened bottle of vinegar with intact packaging should remain usable for many years past its printed best by date. However, if you notice any leaking, swelling or damage to the packaging, it’s best to discard it.

What exactly happens as vinegar ages and deteriorates?

Vinegar is produced by fermenting a sugary liquid into alcohol using yeast, then a second fermentation process converts the alcohol into acetic acid with the help of bacteria. This acetic acid is what gives vinegar its tangy, pungent flavor and long shelf life as a preservative.

Over time, the acetic acid content in vinegar slowly decreases. This causes the acidic taste to become more mild and muted. Sediment formation and cloudiness also indicate degradation of the vinegar compounds. If enough oxygen enters the bottle, oxidation can cause color changes or development of off-flavors.

The main concern with very old vinegars is the potential growth of dangerous bacteria and fungi, such as mold. Vinegar is acidic enough to inhibit most microbial growth, but over many years, the pH may rise enough to allow undesirable microbes to multiply if contamination was introduced.

Are there risks to ingesting expired or old vinegars?

Consuming vinegars that have been kept sealed and stored properly for a few years past their expiration date is very unlikely to cause any health risks or food poisoning. However, just as with any aging food product, there are some warnings to heed if you plan to use very old vinegars:

  • Mold – Vinegar with visible mold or fuzzy/cloudy patches should be discarded. Ingesting mold puts you at risk for allergic reactions and respiratory issues.
  • Bacteria – If old enough, vinegar may potentially harbor harmful bacterial growth like salmonella, E. coli, or botulism toxin. Botulism risk is mainly a concern in improperly home-canned foods.
  • Lead – Older vinegar bottles may leach lead if this metal was used in the glass or cap material. Lead exposure can cause nerve damage and other adverse health effects.
  • Reduced Nutrition – The nutrients in fruit-infused and herbal vinegars can degrade over time, lowering their nutritional value.

Always inspect aged vinegars closely before use and discard any with off aromas, appearance or contaminated with mold or sediment. As long as it looks and smells normal, the small risk of bacteria in old vinegar is extremely low.

Taste and flavor changes

The most noticeable effect of using old vinegar is reduced vibrancy of flavor. Over time, the acids degrade into simpler compounds, lowering the overall acidity. Complex flavors imparted by fruits, herbs and spices also fade over time. Sediment formation results from precipitation of organic compounds and minerals as they degrade.

These natural aging processes change the taste profile compared to fresh vinegar, making it taste flat, muted, or slightly oxidized/cardboard-like. The smell may also become less bright. While not dangerous, many cooks find the reduced palatability makes old vinegars better suited for cleaning rather than culinary purposes.

Effects of vinegar aging on specific varieties:

  • Balsamic vinegar – May develop sediment/crystals, sweetness fades leaving duller acidity
  • Apple cider vinegar – Loses bright, fruity aroma and tartness
  • White/distilled vinegar – Flat, slightly oxidized aroma and more muted acid bite
  • Rice vinegar – Subtler citrus/umami flavor
  • Red wine vinegar – Loss of fruity, wine notes

Is it safe to consume moldy vinegar?

While you may be able to salvage vinegar containing some harmless sediment or clouding, it is not recommended to consume vinegar with visible mold growth. Mold spores and mycotoxins can cause allergic reactions or respiratory complaints if ingested, inhaled or even just contacted.

Even a small amount of mold indicates the bottle was somehow contaminated and that the seal was compromised, making it more risky for pathogen growth. There are also no guidelines on what amount of mold may be safe to consume. For highest safety, it’s recommended to err on the side of caution and discard the moldy vinegar.

How to clean moldy vinegar:

If the mold contamination appears limited to small spots of surface mold, you may wish to clean and sterilize the vinegar container and attempt to rescue the remainder:

  1. Discard any vinegar that had direct contact with the mold
  2. Pour the remaining vinegar into a clean container
  3. Rinse out the original bottle well with hot water and detergent
  4. Sterilize the bottle by filling with boiling water for 10 minutes
  5. Allow to fully dry before reusing to store the salvaged vinegar

However, any mold growth means potential bacteria could also be present and thriving, even if not visible. For highest safety, it is recommended to discard the entire bottle.

Can you use old vinegar for cleaning?

Old or expired vinegars that have experienced some reduction in taste and potency are still very effective for most cleaning needs. The acidic nature is what makes vinegar useful as a household cleaner and disinfectant.

As long as it has not grown mold, turned rancid/strong smelling or become extremely cloudy, you can safely use aged vinegar:

  • In DIY all-purpose cleaners and spray solutions
  • To clean countertops, windows, floors
  • To soak and disinfect cutting boards and appliances
  • As a fabric softener in laundry
  • To brighten and disinfect tiles and sinks
  • For odor removal
  • As part of homemade weed killers

Vinegar used for cleaning does not need to meet the same freshness and purity standards as vinegar added to food. Just take the same precautions to avoid contact or vapors if the vinegar has very strong fumes or appears contaminated.

Does heat affect expired vinegar safety?

Exposing vinegar to heat can affect its shelf life and safety in a couple ways:

  • Accelerated degradation – Heat speeds up chemical reactions and the degradation of acids and flavor compounds in vinegar.
  • Kills microbes – Boiling old vinegars can kill bacteria and mold, rendering it safer if contamination is a concern.
  • Produces fumes – Heating vinegars, especially those past prime quality, can produce strong irritating fumes.

So while boiling old vinegars may destroy some potentially harmful microbes, it can also degrade quality and produce vapors that need proper ventilation. Heating a compromised vinegar also does not get rid of potential toxins or byproducts from microbial growth. For these reasons, it’s still best practice to discard very old vinegars rather than trying to revive them.

Does freezing extend vinegar shelf life?

Freezing is not an effective way to significantly prolong the shelf life and freshness of opened vinegars. Vinegar’s acidity and low water content actually makes it difficult to freeze solid. Freezing also does not stop the chemical reactions that slowly degrade vinegar over time.

However, unopened vinegar bottles can be frozen as a strategy to prolong shelf life of inventory if you purchase large volumes that take years to use up. Freezing preserves the original freshness and prevents any air contact or temperature fluctuations that can slowly degrade quality before the bottles are opened.

Tips for freezing vinegar:

  • Only freeze unopened bottles.
  • Allow headspace in bottles for expansion.
  • Use freezer-safe glass bottles – some may crack.
  • Seal lids tightly.
  • Wrap bottles well to prevent freezer burn.
  • Label bottles with freezing date.
  • Use within 1 year frozen for best quality.

Once thawed and opened, vinegars will resume normal shelf life so use within the typical recommended timeframe for that specific type.

How to store vinegar properly?

Proper storage is key to maximizing the shelf life of all vinegars. Follow these tips:

  • Cool & dry place – Store vinegar at room temperature or slightly cool if possible. Keep away from heat and moisture.
  • Tight lids – Always reseal bottles/caps tightly to limit air exposure.
  • Dark bottles – Purchase vinegar sold in tinted or opaque bottles when possible. Light can accelerate aging.
  • Clean bottles – Avoid introducing contamination by using clean utensils and dry bottles.
  • Smaller bottles – Once opened, transfer vinegar to smaller bottles to limit air contact and use quicker.

Unopened vinegars stored properly in a cool, dry pantry can remain usable for several years past any best-by date on the bottle. Keep opened bottles capped tightly and stored away from light and heat for maximum longevity.

How to tell if unopened vinegar is still good?

An unopened bottle of vinegar has an exceptionally long shelf life. Distilled white vinegar may last up to 5 years after the printed expiration date. Wine vinegars keep for 3-4 years and cider or fruit vinegar 2-3 years past the date on the package when stored properly.

Check for these signs your unopened vinegar may no longer be good:

  • Broken seal, loose cap or leaking bottle
  • Bulging or severely dented packaging
  • Significant sediment or crystals have formed
  • Cloudiness or haziness
  • Darkening or change in color
  • Strong smell when bottle is shaken

If the vinegar has been stored in a reasonable climate-controlled environment and the bottle appears intact with no signs of damage, sediment or leakage, it should be fine for use for several years past the printed expiration date.


Vinegar’s long shelf life and acidic properties mean it is very unlikely to make you sick, even years past the best-by date on the bottle. However, very old vinegars may start to take on off-flavors, cloudiness or potentially harbor mold if contaminated and left sitting too long.

While not inherently hazardous, it is best practice to discard very aged vinegars that have noticeable changes in aroma, appearance or acidity, as quality and taste will be diminished. If mold appears, vinegar should be discarded entirely. Freezing can prolong shelf life of unopened bottles short term but is not practical for long term storage or once opened.

Properly stored, unopened vinegar stays fresh for up to 2-5 years past its printed expiration date. Opened, vinegars last around 1-2 years before deteriorating in quality, if not appearance. Remember to practice good food safety and discard any vinegar that smells or looks off rather than risk getting sick from compromised product.

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