Barbecue sauce is a cookout staple, which means it spends a lot of time on picnic tables. But does it need to be refrigerated? And if so, how long is it safe to leave it out at room temperature—or in hot weather? Our guide will provide you with the answers.
Does BBQ Sauce Need To Be Refrigerated?
Most store-bought BBQ sauces are shelf stable, meaning they don’t need to be refrigerated until they’re opened. That said, keeping the bottle in the fridge can prolong its overall shelf life. Homemade barbecue sauce should be refrigerated whenever you’re not using it, as it spoils faster than the preservative-laden store-bought varieties.
About Barbecue Sauce
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that BBQ sauce is just a fancy name for ketchup. While both can have a tomato base, that’s not always the case with BBQ sauce.
What’s more, ketchup is pretty much just tomato puree with water and vinegar, though some other flavorings may be added. BBQ sauce comes in a number of varieties and includes a bunch of sweet and savory ingredients to give it richness and complexity.
The base for BBQ sauce can vary depending on the region. For example, Kansas City barbecue favors a sticky, tomato-based sauce. In South Carolina, BBQ sauce has a mustard base, while North Carolina sauces consist mainly of vinegar and crushed red pepper.
When making homemade BBQ sauce, you can experiment with different ingredients to find the flavor and consistency you want. Apple cider vinegar, mustard, and ketchup or tomato paste are standard bases.
For added spice or sweetness, try cumin, brown sugar, honey, molasses, liquid smoke, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, garlic, or onions. And don’t forget the salt, which will highlight the other flavors.
Does BBQ Sauce Need To Be Refrigerated?
As is often the case with questions relating to food safety, the answer depends on the circumstances.
If you’ve purchased a standard bottle of store-bought BBQ sauce, you don’t have to refrigerate it until it’s opened. This should be obvious right away, since these sauces are usually stored on supermarket shelves at room temperature.
When stored in a cool, dry place, unopened bottles of BBQ sauce can last for about a year. Be sure to check the label before you make your purchase, just to make sure it hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for a long time already.
Once you’ve opened that bottle, though, you should keep it in the fridge. It should keep for up to 4 months under these conditions. Again, you should check the label to find out what the manufacturers recommend.
Although it’s not necessary to store unopened bottles in the fridge, doing so can prolong their shelf life. An unopened, refrigerated bottle of BBQ sauce might retain its freshness for as long as 2 years.
Storing Homemade BBQ Sauce
Though store-bought brands are shelf stable, homemade BBQ sauce is another story. The stuff you buy at the store includes preservatives—including a ton of sugar—that allows it to stay fresh for long periods of time.
Your homemade BBQ sauce may also include preservatives like sugar, vinegar, or lemon juice. However, it’s better to store it in the fridge. It hasn’t been processed in the same way, so mold might form if it’s stored at room temperature.
Homemade BBQ sauce should keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, depending on what ingredients you use. If it has a vinegar base and includes only a few other ingredients, it will keep longer than a tomato-based sauce.
How Long Can BBQ Sauce Sit Out?
What if you forget to put the bottle of BBQ sauce back in the fridge after your cookout? Fortunately, most brands are fairly forgiving. You should have up to 48 hours to return the sauce to the fridge before it starts to exhibit signs of spoilage.
Homemade sauce should be refrigerated after just a couple of hours. It won’t necessarily go bad if you leave it out longer, but as we’ve pointed out, it is more perishable than its store-bought counterparts.
Speaking of which, BBQ sauce can go bad just like many other condiments. See the section below for tips on how to check for spoilage.
One more thing: If it’s a hot day, be sure to put the sauce back in the fridge as soon as possible. Hot and humid conditions will turn the sauce rancid in a hurry.
How To Tell If BBQ Sauce Has Gone Bad
Your first step is to take a good look at the sauce. Do you see any white spots or patches on it? If so, it’s started to grow mold and needs to be discarded. In fact, if you see any unusual colors or substances at all, throw the bottle out.
Note that the sauce hasn’t necessarily gone bad just because it’s darkened in color. This is a normal phenomenon and not an indication of spoilage. But if the sauce is a different color altogether, that’s a red flag.
BBQ sauce that’s been kept in the pantry too long will be unpleasantly thick. If this is the case with yours, you’ll need to discard the bottle.
You can also take a good whiff of the sauce to see if you notice a foul odor. It should smell like the ingredients used to make it, not bitter or sour.
It’s generally not a good idea to taste food if you suspect that it’s gone bad. But if the sauce looks and smells fine, try putting a tiny dab on your tongue to test the flavor. Again, any sour or bitter notes mean that the sauce is no longer fresh.
Freezing BBQ Sauce
Since store-bought BBQ sauce keeps for a relatively long time in the fridge, freezing it is seldom necessary. But if you want to preserve your homemade sauce for 3 to 4 months, you should consider this option.
We like to freeze sauces in an ice cube tray, then transfer the cubes to a zip-top bag once they’re completely solid. That way, we can thaw just as much sauce as we need.
Alternatively, you can put the sauce in an airtight container or disinfected Mason jar before storing it in the freezer. Just remember that you’ll have to thaw the entire container when you’re ready to use the sauce again.
Other Storage and Handling Tips for BBQ Sauce
—Check the expiration date on the bottle, but use it as a guide rather than an actual deadline. The sauce might still be fine after the date has passed, especially if you stored it in the fridge the whole time.
—After each use, put the cap back on the bottle as tightly as you can. This will prevent air and moisture from entering the bottle, thereby inhibiting mold and mildew growth.
—Keep the sauce out of direct sunlight whenever possible. Exposure to heat and light will alter the chemical composition of the sauce, leading to premature spoilage.
—Clean the neck of the bottle and the cap before putting the sauce back in the fridge. Otherwise, mold might form on the sauce that’s exposed to the air.
—Store the bottle upside down to slow oxidation.
—Discard any sauce that’s been poured into serving dishes. Don’t try to transfer it back into the bottle.
—Don’t dip food straight into the bottle. This causes cross-contamination, as any bits of food left behind will spoil more quickly than the sauce. That means you’ll have to discard the whole bottle.
—If you’re applying BBQ sauce to raw or undercooked meat, make sure to clean the tool you used immediately afterward. Don’t use it again on cooked meat without washing it first, as it may be contaminated with bacteria.
—Wait until meat has nearly finished cooking to apply the sauce. The sugars will burn if they’re exposed to the heat for too long, giving the food a bitter taste.
The Bottom Line
While there’s no need to refrigerate an unopened bottle of store-bought BBQ sauce, doing so can help it last longer. If space is an issue, it’s fine to keep the bottle in the cupboard before you open it as long as it stays cool and dry.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!