Vinegar in Hot Sauce 101: The Essential Guide

Assortment of vinegars

Last Updated on March 10, 2024 by Chris Whitehair

All of Your Vinegar in Hot Sauce Questions, Answered.

If there was a trinity of hot sauce, it would be chili peppers, vinegar and salt (but if you’re needing to watch your salt intake, check out my other blog on Low Sodium Hot Sauce). Also, this trinity is not to be confused with Irazu Unholy Trinity Hot Sauce which is comprised of Ghost (Naga Jolokia), Trinidad Scorpion and Carolina Reaper peppers. Vinegar in hot sauce is the second most important part of that trinity.

In this blog, we’ll cover:

  • A brief history & science of vinegar.
  • Why we need vinegar in hot sauce.
  • The 6 best types of vinegar for a hot sauce.
  • What to do if you hate vinegar in hot sauce.

By the end, you’ll have an impressive understanding of all things vinegar. And you’ll know enough about it to up your sauce-making game with more diverse and complex flavors.

Let’s dive in!

What is Vinegar?

The best place to start is with the name, which comes from vyn egre. “Vyn” means wine and “egre” means sour. And just about everything you need to know about vinegar is summed up in that name — sour wine.

You see, vinegar is basically just fermented alcohol. It’s second generation booze. And if you want to get more technical, we can say that it is,

Water (90-95%) + Acetic Acid (5-10%) = Vinegar

And this acetic acid is what you get when you let a little organism called aceto bacteria get drunk off your liquor. It can be any liquor too, not just wine. You could have your aceto bacteria feed off cider, grain alcohol, grape must, coconut and more.

Three barrels in a line

The basic formula is:

  • Add a grain or sugar (potato, rice, grape, apple) to water
  • Let yeast turn the sugars into ethyl alcohol
  • Put some aceto bacteria in the mix to feed off the alcohol
  • Collect the acetic acid they produce as waste
  • Dilute it with some water

And voila, there’s your vinegar! You can make it from just about any kind of sugar that’s been turned into an alcohol (which gives you all of the different vinegar flavors that we’ll talk about in a moment).

This is all interesting, but it does beg the question…

“Why Do We Even Need Vinegar in Hot Sauce?”

Well, for two reasons:

  1. To preserve it.
  2. To drive its flavor.

Acetic acid kills microbes that cause foods to spoil and allows it to last longer. This is why you see bottles of Cholula® sitting out on the tables of Mexican restaurants for what seems like years on end (but remember, we’re not talking refrigeration, that’s a whole other topic you can read about here).

The FDA classifies vinegar as an “acidified food,” which means that it’s heavily regulated. And according to FDA guidelines, an acidified food has to maintain a pH level of 4.6 or below. One of the only ways to achieve this is by using vinegar, hence why it’s so common.

But vinegar also drives the flavor of most hot sauces. It adds that unmistakable sour, tangy, and lip-smacking quality. For many, that flavor is indispensable.

If you are wondering how much vinegar to use to preserve hot sauce, the standard recommendation Is 20-30% (by weight).

Jackie Chan licking his lips

Different vinegars also add unique flavors to a sauce. And, if you know how to use them, vinegar in hot sauce can bring incredible depth to them. Which leads us to…

The 6 Best Vinegars for a Hot Sauce

There are as many types of vinegars as there are sugars to ferment. Which is basically a way of saying that there’s a lot of different kinds! Potatoes, rice, corn, fruit — any of these work for making vinegar.

But when it comes to hot sauces, not all vinegars are made equal. And some have established themselves as the quintessential hot sauce vinegars.

So, without any further ado (and in no particular order), here are your Top 6 Hot Sauce Vinegars.

1. White Vinegar

All hail the king of vinegars! White vinegar in hot sauce is by far the common vinegar. Really, the most common in all of cooking.

It’s made from a grain alcohol similar to vodka, so it has the most neutral taste out of any vinegar. This makes it perfect as a foundation for other ingredients.

You can think of it as a blank slate that allows other flavors to shine through. Despite its neutral flavor, though, white vinegar is still strong, sharp and forward.

There are countless sauces that use white vinegar as a base, but Fresco Sauce Chipotle & Habanero Hot Sauce is one of my favorites.

This great sauce was featured on the hit YouTube show Hot Ones Season 12.

Fresco Sauce Chipotle & Habanero Hot Sauce
Buy Now

Example containing White Vinegar:

Fresco Sauce Chipotle & Habanero Hot Sauce

Ingredients: Habanero Peppers, Chipotle Chili Powder, Carrots, Distilled White Vinegar, Olive Oil, Garlic, Salt, Organic Sugar, Black Pepper, Water.

2. Apple Cider Vinegar

Since this vinegar is derived from apple cider, it has a sweeter, fruitier taste. It also has an incredibly distinctive flavor (as anyone who’s tried Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar straight-up can attest), while still being softer than white vinegar.

Apple cider vinegar pairs best with a sweeter hot sauce. For example, those containing fruit like mango or pineapple.

For example, one of my favorite hot sauces that uses it is PepperNutz Caribbean Rum Hot Sauce, which pairs an apple cider vinegar base with cayenne peppers, pineapple, mango and dark rum! It’s a taste of the Caribbean!

PepperNutz Caribbean Rum Hot Sauce
Buy Now

Example containing Apple Cider Vinegar:

PepperNutz Caribbean Rum Hot Sauce

 Pineapple, Apple Cider Vinegar, Dark Rum, Honey, Mango, Natural Sugar, Raisins, Water, Cayenne Peppers, Peri Peri Peppers, Spices, and Xanthan Gum (a natural thickener).

3. White Wine Vinegar

This vinegar is taken from white wine and has a sweeter, more mellow taste. It’s tart, but doesn’t have the same bite as a white vinegar. It’s perfectly in the middle — not too sour, not too sweet.

Because it has a lower acidity, though, you’ll see it often blended with another vinegar. However, a great example of a sauce without another vinegar mixed in is Bravado Spice Co.’s Ghost Pepper & Blueberry Hot Sauce.

This hot sauce was also on Hot Ones during Season 3.

Ghost Pepper & Blueberry Hot Sauce
Buy Now

Example containing White Wine Vinegar:

Bravado Spice Co. Ghost Pepper & Blueberry Hot Sauce

Ingredients: Blueberry, Raspberry, White Wine Vinegar, Ghost Pepper, Ground Black Pepper, Salt.


Other Great White Wine Vinegar Hot Sauces

4. Rice Wine Vinegar

Rice Wine Vinegar in hot sauce has a very delicate flavor. Out of all vinegars, it probably has the mildest flavor. Sweet and not overwhelming.

If you see just “Rice Vinegar” on the label, don’t be confused, rice wine vinegar is the same thing as rice vinegar.

It is best to pair rice wine vinegar with another type such as apple cider or white.

There are quite a few hot sauces that incorporate rice wine vinegar. One of my favorites is High River Sauces Foo Foo Mama Choo Hot Sauce which is made with the hottest pepper on earth, the Carolina Reaper.

High River Sauces Foo Foo Mama Choo Hot Sauce
Buy Now

Example containing Rice Wine Vinegar:

Foo Foo Mama Choo Hot Sauce

Ingredients: Roasted Red Peppers (roasted peppers, water, salt, citric acid), Fire Roasted Tomatoes (vine ripened tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, citric acid), Rice Wine Vinegar, Reaper Peppers, Onions, Brown Sugar, Garlic, Soy Sauce, Ginger Root, Salt, White Pepper, Secret Herbs & Spices.

5. Red Wine Vinegar

Red wine vinegar in hot sauce is a little less common than other vinegars but it still works great for some hot sauces. A lot of people love the distinct flavor, which is slightly fruity.

It mixes great with other vinegars too.

One of my favorite hot sauces to use Red Wine Vinegar is Rising Smoke Sauceworks All In which blends red wine vinegar with not one, not two, not three but four peppers: Smoked Carolina Reaper, Ghost Pepper, Smoked Habaneros and Cayenne. Divine!

Rising Smoke Sauceworks All In Hot Sauce
Buy Now

Example containing Red Wine Vinegar:

Rising Smoke Sauceworks All In

Ingredients: Red Wine Vinegar, Smoked Carolina Reaper Pepper, Ghost Pepper, Smoked Habanero Pepper, Tomatoes, Chili Powder, Garlic Powder, Cayenne Powder, Pink Himalayan Salt, Basil, Oregano.

6. Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar in hot sauce? This is the wildcard of hot sauce vinegars, and you won’t find it used that often. If you can find it, it’s an amazing addition when it’s used right.

Made from grape must, real balsamic vinegar is an art form. It has to be made with a very specific grape from Modena and aged in progressively smaller barrels for 15-25 years. Our Flower City Flavor Company Dark Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is one of the best available on the market.

But even some (semi-) knock-off balsamic vinegars can go great in hot sauce. Because their flavor is so powerful and distinct, though, it’s usually best to dilute it with another vinegar, like apple cider.

You have to dig a little bit to find a sauce that uses balsamic. The one that really stands out In my mind is Angry Goat Pepper Co.’s Chocolate Habanero, Balsamic & Black Garlic Hot Sauce.

Angry Goat Pepper Co. Chocolate Habanero Balsamic Black Garlic Hot Sauce
Buy Now

Example containing Balsamic Vinegar:

Angry Goat Pepper Co. Chocolate Habanero, Balsamic & Black Garlic

Ingredients: Chocolate Habanero Pepper Mash (peppers, vinegar), Balsamic Vinegar, Apple Cider Vinegar, Smoked Vermont Maple Syrup, Water, Black Garlic Powder, Granulated Garlic, Sea Salt.

“What if I Hate Vinegar in Hot Sauce?”

You’ll often hear people complain about the vinegar taste in hot sauce.

This is especially true of some of the bigger brands like Tabasco®, which are sometimes lovingly referred to as “vinegar bombs.”

Vinegary hot sauce can be too forward and overpowering. And there seems something cheap about its quality (which is true), so they write off all hot sauces with vinegar.

So What Can You Do?

Well, a few things.

First, it’s worth pointing out that most people (even if they say otherwise) actually do like vinegar in their hot sauce — that sour bite makes all the difference. They just hate when the vinegar is too aggressive and tastes cheap.

So the first thing you can do is stop buying cheap hot sauce and get yourself something nice from Flower City Flavor Company (shameless plug alert)! I guarantee you’ll change your mind.

If that doesn’t work, I’ve got a couple more solutions for you.

#1 Mask It
If vinegar is an issue, you can use other ingredients to mask the flavor. Look for hot sauces with added fruits, juices or honey that can help cancel some of the acidity and hide the sharp flavor.

Honey dripping from a spoon

#2 Avoid It
Pay attention to the order of ingredients on any hot sauce. The rule-of-thumb is the further down the list you find something, the less of it there is.

So look for hot sauces that list vinegar as the second, third or even fourth ingredient, where the flavor will be less forward.

Citrus fruits in a line

#3 Replace It
You’ve got a couple of options if you want to replace the vinegar in your hot sauce. Keep in mind that the point of vinegar (besides driving the flavor) is to act as a preservative.

This means you can replace it with the citric acid from lemons and limes. You’ll probably have trouble finding a brand that does this (I only found two — Tabanero and Rising Hy), so you might have to make your own if you want to use lemon or lime juice. Simply replace any vinegar in the recipe with an equal amount of juice.

You could also use alcohol itself as a preservative. This is pretty rare, but there is a brand doing it — Swamp Dragon out of Louisiana.

Finally, if you make it yourself, you can try fermenting your own peppers. It’s a safe, simple process that pulls out acid directly from the peppers themselves. But this is basically making vinegar from the peppers themselves, so it might defeat the point.

#4 Get Rid of It
Technically, you can just make your own hot sauce without any vinegar. Keep in mind though that you have to eat it right away or refrigerate it for a few days.

Vinegar in Hot Sauce: A Conclusion

That’s all she wrote! My vinegar diatribe ends. I hope you learned something and I hope you try out some of these great sauces! Now remember, regardless if a hot sauce has vinegar in it or not, the most important thing to consider is its FLAVOR.

19 thoughts on “Vinegar in Hot Sauce 101: The Essential Guide

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Thanks for the info! My vinegar question is…if I want to make my own hot sauce, how much vinegar do I need to use to preserve it? Or citrus juice if I want to try that? I’m actually thinking of using pickle juice.

  2. Chris Whitehair says:

    Hey Paul,

    20%-25% of the hot sauce should be vinegar to preserve it. The same amount of citrus/pickle juice should do it too, though there will be variances depending on other ingredients you’ll be using.

    The pH level is going to be key here so I recommend getting a pH tester, you’ll want your finished hot sauce to be at 3.4.

    ALWAYS refrigerate and I’d love to see how it turns out!

  3. Ed says:

    So how can the hot sauces sit out on a table at a restraunt, for so long?
    Is it the vinegar?

    DO I have to refrigerate it?

  4. Chris Whitehair says:

    Hey Alex,

    Nothing will “happen” other than having a water-less jalapeño hot sauce. If your question was more in regards to how the sauce will taste, there are lot of different factors that would go into that. What type of vinegar are you using? What are the other ingredients (if any)? How long are you cooking it for?

    Water is a very common ingredient in hot sauce, I would say it probably is the 4th most common behind peppers, vinegar, and salt. There’s a lot of ways water can manipulate a sauce, both positively and negatively. Water can thin out a sauce and therefore dilute its flavor. More important to consider is the quality of water. I wouldn’t use just use normal tap water from the sink, definitely use a filtered water. Water can also reduce the heat of the hot sauce by lessening the volume of peppers in a mix.

    Water can be cooked off and therefore still be apart of the recipe process but not end up having to be on a final label. I would suggest taking a look at some of your favorite hot sauce’s labels and see if they have water listed as an ingredient. If a sauce does and it’s the type of sauce you’d like to mimic, use it as a reference as you are making up your own batch.

  5. Ramsie says:

    Good day Chris, I am making piquante sauce and preserving it with 20% of white vinegar but after a week or so white patches of mold emanate on top. Should I add more vinegar?

    • Chris Whitehair says:

      Hi Ramsie, have you measured the pH level? You’ll want to aim for 3.4. That would be my first step of curbing spoiled sauce. I would also make sure you are refrigerating any home made sauces too to curb bacteria growth, trust me when i say you don’t want botulism!

  6. Mary Gallimore says:

    I have major issues with salt, almost like an allergy. Can you make hot sauce without the salt, or with minimal salt?

    • Chris Whitehair says:

      Thanks for reading and your words Kenneth! I’ve had a lot of great minds help me over the years, and I try to do what I can to pay it forward. I’m still always learning, it never ends!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.