Why The pH Level of a Hot Sauce is Important

I have been bottling my own hot sauce and have discovered there are several methods of putting it into containers for the possibility of selling it. I do not use any chemical preservatives and I don’t want to refrigerate it after I bottle it. Therefore, I will have to be concerned with the pH level before it gets bottled.

Why is the pH of hot sauce important?

The pH level of a hot sauce is important if you plan on bottling your sauce for sale and do not want to refrigerate it during distribution or store it in coolers. A good pH level for the sauce should be around 3.4 and can be tested accurately with a pH meter. The lower pH level or acidity of the hot sauce prevents harmful bacteria from growing, preserves the hot sauce and allows for a longer shelf life.

All hot sauces contain hot peppers either in crushed, mashed, blended or powdered form and are often combined with other acidic ingredients such as vinegar and garlic (read Easy Hot Sauce Recipe or What is Hot Sauce Made With? for more on the basic ingredients in a hot sauce). The vinegar or presence of other acids will protect against oxidation, help with preservation and keep bacterial growth from happening. Sometimes it’s the acid-containing ingredients such as vinegar or citrus that give hot sauce its signature tang, bite or zip along with the hot peppers.

The pH (Potential Hydrogen) is not a substance and does not have flavoring but there can be a “taste” to some acids typically found in vinegar, tomatoes, lemons and other common hot sauce ingredients. It is the pH testing that will measure the levels of these acids in your hot sauce to determine if your sauce is acidic or alkaline. (Read The Shocking Truth of Alkaline Hot Sauce if you are making a sauce with a high alkaline level). Similar testing is commonly done in water and soils as well to determine the acid / alkaline levels for a variety of reasons.

The ingredients of hot sauce will need to be combined within a suitable pH level to lengthen the shelf life of your home-made sauce, which would otherwise need to be refrigerated. If you are making and storing your hot sauce to be distributed, pH testing may be the best way for someone new to the hot sauce business or you can follow other methods of preserving as well, which could be costlier and more time consuming. Read Bottle and Sell Hot Sauce From Your Home, for the complete guide to bottling hot sauce at home and How To Make Hot Sauce Safe For Consumption for a breakdown on what changes the pH of hot sauce.

Hot sauce with a pH above 4.6 faces regulations for refrigerator shelf life that has been inconsistent over the past few years and would require you to keep your sauce refrigerated, shipped in refrigerated trucks and stored in coolers for sale. This is not the most common approach for hot sauces that are mass produced for sales and can create very high production costs. Read more on refrigeration in Here’s Your Answers To A Refrigerated Hot Sauce. Although according to the FDA, refrigeration is one of the best ways to keep foods from the slow growth of E. coli, botulinum and Salmonella but it requires strict attention to temperature, keeping doors shut and keeping the power on. However, the growth of microorganisms can also be controlled by the acidity (level of pH), the level of water activity, using chemical preservatives or through the packaging process.

Clostridium Botulinum will thrive at a pH level above 4.6 and these toxins have proven to be deadly even in cooked foods. Keeping the pH level below the 4.6 is crucial but it will not kill any preformed toxins states the WHO, the World Health Organization, not the 60’s British rock group. This is why the proper sanitization of bottles is important before bottling hot sauce regardless of the pH level.

Although according to the FDA a pH level below 4.6 will ensure that bacteria will not thrive, a good target pH for hot sauce is about 3.4 is recommenced. This is to provide room for error in the reading due to a variety of inconsistent condition, inaccurate meters, temperature of the sauce, or a freshly made sauce that has not completely fermented.

What does pH level mean?

PH is the level of acidity in a liquid substance and is measured on a scale from 0 to 14 with 7 being neutral. Anything measuring from 0 to 6 would be acidic and anything measuring from 8 to 14 would be considered on the alkaline side of the scale. A measurement of 7 is neutral like most tap water.

If you are bottling your hot sauce at home, you will most likely not be adding a chemical preservative that can alter the pH level and possibly change the flavor of a hot sauce recipe. If you are making a sauce that contains vinegar your pH level should be within the limits to kill harmful bacteria but if you are not using vinegar, follow the guidelines of the GMP (Good Manufacturing Process). This would require heating a sauce to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and bottling it while it is warm.

What is the best pH level of hot sauce?

Hot sauce should have a pH level of about 3.4 to prevent the growth of bacteria. Although the FDA states that a pH of 4.6 can prevent bacterial growth there are factors that can prevent a reading from being accurate. A sufficient pH level of 3.4 can generally be achieved with hot sauce recipes that are at least 20% vinegar. This will usually produce an acceptable pH level but there are also ways to lower this by increasing the amount of vinegar or other acidic ingredients.

The pH level of a hot sauce determines how much acid it contains verses how much alkaline it will have. The lower the pH number the more acids there are, and it is the acid that is needed to kill the bacteria. As mentioned previously, a neutral pH is around 7 on the pH scale and this is a potentially thriving environment for bacteria. This is about the measurement of where most water falls within the scale. To give an idea of other pH levels, lemon juice will have a pH level between 2.0 and 2.6 pH and lime juice will be between 2.0 and 2.35 pH. Most vinegar will be between 2.4 and 3.4 pH with distilled white vinegar being the lowest and apple cider vinegar being one of the highest. Garlic and peppers, other common hot sauce ingredients, will be higher in pH and could raise a sauce towards the alkaline side of the scale.

The pH of a hot sauce is not completely determined by the acidity of the liquids that are in the recipe. Many other common hot sauce ingredients will have a pH reading and can determine what the final pH level will be. Check out The pH of Common Foods published by Clemson. Foods included in a hot sauce that are closer to 7 on the pH scale, or those ingredients having a higher alkaline level may need a form of preservative added. One of the main ingredients in a hot sauce, peppers, can have a pH reading between 4.6 and 5.4. Read the 12 Most Common Preservatives Used in Hot Sauce for methods for lowering the pH of hot sauce.

How can I lower the pH level of hot sauce?

Add citric juices or vinegar to lower the pH of a hot sauce to make it more acidic. Certain types of vinegar could have different levels of acidity but generally they will produce enough acid to bring the pH down to about 3.4 depending on the ratio of ingredients. If your hot sauce recipe is at least 20% to 25% vinegar or similar acidic liquid, then the pH will be low enough to preserve the sauce and increase the shelf life. Find out more about the ratio of ingredients or the combination of mixtures for a hot sauce in The Hot Sauce Recipe Workbook. Get the paperback here from Amazon or download the instant PDF here.

The pH level of a hot sauce is caused by the content quantity of each ingredient and the type of ingredients you are using. If you have a great hot sauce recipe you have worked on for months and have a pH level that is too high, it can be adjusted but it will alter the recipe. Adding lime juice or vinegar to reduce the pH level could change how your recipe tastes and appears, but both of these are common ingredients.

A good thing to do is to test your sauce throughout your recipe process for the pH level with a pH meter. You can also do this with the individual ingredients you are using such as vinegar and lemon or lime juice. You can certainly test any water you are using but depending on where it comes from will be neutral, or about 7.

Testing the individual ingredients may not be necessary but you would need a conical tip electrode on your pH meter to probe the fruits, vegetables and spices you are using. The probe on the meter will provide an accurate pH of any fruits or vegetables and knowing this could help adjust the sauce if necessary. We like the Aspera Premium Series PH 60S with the tip to penetrate solid ingredients. Using such ingredients is common in gourmet hot sauce recipes and this is where the pH can be thrown off. Generally speaking, throughout history, hot sauce has been considered acidic until recent years when the trend has been gourmet, craft or artisan style sauces.

Is hot sauce acidic?

Hot sauce is considered acidic if it has a pH level between 0 and 7 or ideally around 3.4 pH. A fermented hot sauce will have about the same pH level of a vinegar based hot sauce without the addition of vinegar. The fermentation process of a hot sauce will give it more acid than the peppers themselves, but this sauce will also have to be refrigerated. Read more on Understanding The Fermentation Process of a Hot Sauce for how to make a fermented hot sauce.

The acidity of a hot sauce is not always considered a negative effect on the human body will often take a large consumption, very large consumption of sauce to be noticeable at all. Acid foods do not cause heartburn, but they can trigger symptoms of acid reflux. Specifically, in a hot sauce it isn’t the hot peppers, but the addition of acidic liquids like vinegar or citrus juices that cause acid reflux. Read more on Ingredients in Hot Sauce that Cause Heartburn for the truth on common myths about hot sauce and heartburn. Regardless of what hot sauce may or may not do to the human body, a homemade hot sauce or hot sauce made for commercial production should be tested for pH to determine its shelf-life stability.

How do I test hot sauce for pH levels?

If you are concerned with the pH level of your hot sauce the two most common ways of testing a hot sauce are litmus paper, also known as pH test strips, or a pH test meter. The most accurate of these methods is the pH meter and they can have a cost range from $15 for a simple handheld meter or up to $300 for lab quality equipment. See the Recommended Meters page for our top picks!

The Pinpoint pH Meter Kit from Amazon is portable and has a clear, readable digital display. It comes with a separate probe on a 10′ cable for ease of testing and mobility. Some of these meters can get very expensive but litmus paper is a much less expensive way of measuring pH as well. I also like the size, accuracy and portability of the handheld meters and they are super easy to use as well. Read here on How to Use a pH Meter Properly to Test Hot Sauce

Most commercial manufacturers of hot sauce test their sauces in laboratories for an accurate pH along with the with testing of the contents for a nutritional label. Testing in a laboratory is usually done when a recipe has been perfected and is ready for commercial sale. Testing the with a meter can be a much less expensive method of getting similar results. A pH meter is not a flawless method of test the pH level of a hot sauce because there can be several factors that can alter the readings.

Temperature of the hot sauce, the accuracy of the meter, and the type of sauce can all make a difference on the exact pH measurement of a hot sauce recipe. These factors may not be evident in a hot sauce that is commercially tested verses one that is tested in a home kitchen.

Temperature of the hot sauce

According to foodsafety.wisc.edu the temperature of the hot sauce verses the temperature for the calibration of the meter make the difference in the outcome of the reading.

Accuracy of the meter

Although most less expensive handheld or tabletop meters are accurate enough to give a truthful reading, the calibration of the meter itself needs to be performed. Most meters come with pH solutions specifically to calibrate the meter, or they are pre-calibrated before shipment.

Type of sauce

A fermented hot sauce may not fully terminate the process until it is stored at a consistent condition for a week or more. This process can affect the reading of a sauce because the pH level will continually lower. The addition of other ingredients in a hot sauce recipe will end the fermentation process but not always with prompt action.

How to use litmus paper

Litmus paper will give a rough estimate of the pH level. These test strips are available from this link to Amazon (super, super cheap) or at pet stores where aquarium supplies are sold. Any hardware stores where they supply pool test kits will have a department dedicated to pool maintenance where pH test strips are available as well. However, if you regularly make hot sauce for consumption, you should be concerned about the accuracy of the pH and should use a meter.

The test strips will only change color from blue to red, or vice versa, if the hot sauce is acidic but will not change color if it is neutral or does not contain any acid. This is a limiting function of the testing, and any meter will provide much more accurate results. The color change of the paper is relying on the human eye for accuracy instead of a digital reading that a meter can provide.

How to use a pH meter

A pH meter will give a more accurate pH reading for your hot sauce then litmus paper. If you are producing sauce for sale than it would be worth the investment of a pH meter and almost a necessity for proper bottling. These meters are very easy to use, are reusable and give a much more accurate reading for the pH level of your hot sauce. Read the recommended meters on our product review page.

The meters may need to be calibrated upon shipment so follow the manufactures instructions upon receiving the meter after purchase. Temperatures of the sauce could also give false pH readings so measure your sauce at room temperature. Read more here on How to Properly use a pH Meter to Test Hot Sauce.

The flavor and heat of your hot sauce are important but if you plan on bottling your sauce for sale you will want the pH level to be about 3.4 to eliminate the growth of any bacteria. There are many ways to package your hot sauce and if you are simply making a batch for home or another gathering than the pH may not be as important.

Making your own hot sauce?

I have experimented with many combinations of hot pepper, spices and vinegar and many times have failed to make a tasty sauce. It is always good to have a little guidance of some basic recipes that you can use as a base and make adjustments to call the recipe your own. Here is a basic hot sauce recipe from my blog post Easy Hot Sauce Recipe or download 50 unique hot sauce creations from Hot Sauce Recipes.

Selling Your Own Hot Sauce?

Check out and download the FREE profit calculator that I have composed and used to help guide and project the cost of making, bottling and selling my own hot sauce. IT WORKS! Plug in the cost of labor and materials and the profit calculator will:

  1. Provide the profit per bottle, case and pallet
  2. Project profit for the year
  3. Graph profit month by month

Guide To The Hot Sauce Business

  • Complete manual for entering the business
  • Month to month task to guide from startup to operation
  • Financing, co-packing, marketing and more!
  • Get the paperback from Amazon HERE or the instant download HERE!

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