No matter how skilled a cook you are, one pantry staple that should be in your kitchen is red wine vinegar. 

It’s a versatile condiment that brightens up flavors, balances saltiness, and cuts through the fat in a recipe.

Red wine vinegar is made by fermenting red wine with a starter culture and acidic bacteria until it sours. During fermentation, the alcohol in red wine is converted into acetic acid — the main component of vinegar (1).

Red wine vinegar is a whiz in the kitchen. 

When splashed right out of the bottle or whisked into a dressing with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs, it adds a tangy kick of flavor to greens or vegetables.

A bit more mixed with Dijon mustard works wonders as a marinade for meats. When used in more generous amounts, you can pickle and preserve any type of fruit, vegetable, meat, or even eggs.  

You may use it often, but if you discover an old bottle in the back of your pantry, you might wonder whether it’s still safe to use.

Here’s what you need to know about the shelf life of red wine vinegar.

How to store it

As long as your red wine vinegar is in a glass bottle and tightly closed, it should last indefinitely without any risk of spoilage or foodborne illness.

You can store it in a cool, dark place to preserve the quality if you like, but refrigerating it is unnecessary (2).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard requires vinegar to have an acidity of at least 4%. Meanwhile, the European Union sets the standard at 6% acidity for wine vinegar (1, 3).

Given that it’s very acidic, with a pH of around 3.0 on a scale of 1 to 14, red wine — and all — vinegar is self-preserving (4).

A study that compared how foodborne bacteria survive in liquids like juice, tea, coffee, Coke, olive oil, and vinegar found that vinegar had the strongest bacteria-killing effect (5).

In fact, most types of vinegar have been shown to have antimicrobial properties. They can inhibit the growth of pathogenic organisms like E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus (6).

summary

Due to its high acid content and low pH, red wine vinegar is self-preserving. It doesn’t have special storage requirements, as pathogenic bacteria can’t survive or thrive in vinegar.

Might change over time

Every time you open your bottle of red wine vinegar, oxygen gets in, which affects the quality somewhat (2).

Also, if your vinegar was bottled or transferred to a plastic container, oxygen can pass through the plastic, which will affect the quality — even if you don’t open the bottle (2).

When oxygen comes in contact with vinegar, oxidation occurs. This causes the presence of two preservatives — citric acid and sulfur dioxide — to decline and eventually disappear (2).

This doesn’t cause safety concerns, but it does affect the quality.

The biggest oxidation-related changes you might notice in an older bottle of red wine vinegar are a darkened color and the appearance of some solids or cloudy sediment.

You might likewise notice a change in its aroma and a loss of body, or weight, on your palate over time.

summary

Physical changes often occur in an older bottle of vinegar, such as a darkening color, the formation of solids, or changes in the smell or mouthfeel. These happen when it’s exposed to oxygen, but they aren’t harmful to your health.

When to toss it

Most bottles of vinegar don’t have an expiration date. Technically, you can keep your red wine vinegar forever, or at least until it’s used up.

However, even though it’s not a health risk, your recipes might suffer in terms of flavor, color, or aroma.

Before ruining a recipe you worked hard on by adding old red wine vinegar, give the vinegar a taste and smell. If it seems off, your salad or sauce might suffer.

However, if it tastes and smells fine, it’s fine to strain off any solids or cloudy sediment and use it.

Although, it might be worth picking up a fresh bottle next time you’re at the grocery store.

It’s also a good idea to stock an extra bottle of plain, white vinegar if you need a backup. White vinegar is the least likely to degrade over time.

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If your red wine vinegar tastes and smells right, you can strain off any solids and use it safely. However, if it has changed in quality, it might affect the flavor of your recipe, so you should probably toss it or use it for a non-culinary purpose.

Other uses for red wine vinegar

It’s understandable if you don’t want to discard a whole bottle of vinegar just because it’s old. Luckily, vinegar can be used for much more than cooking.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Clean fruits and vegetables. Add a few tablespoons to a large bowl of cold water to wash your greens. The acetic acid in red wine vinegar is especially effective at killing E. coli (7).
  • Freshen the disposal. Freeze it in an ice cube tray and throw the cubes down the disposal.
  • Kill your weeds. Pour it into a spray bottle and spray weeds.
  • Color Easter eggs. Mix 1 teaspoon of the vinegar with 1/2 cup (118 ml) of hot water and a few drops of food coloring.
summary

If you don’t want to throw a bottle of vinegar away, there are many ways to use it around the house and garden. Due to its antimicrobial properties, it makes an especially good fruit and vegetable wash.

The bottom line

Red wine vinegar is perfectly safe to use, even if it’s old. Because it’s highly acidic, it can’t harbor harmful bacteria.

However, over time, especially if it’s opened frequently, it can become darker and solids or cloudiness can form in the bottle. You can strain those off if you like.

Additionally, over time, your red wine vinegar might start to smell or taste a little off. If that happens, replace it and use the old bottle for a non-culinary purpose.