Is Citric Acid OK In Hot Sauce?


It is not unusual for hot sauce to include preservatives as one of the ingredients, especially if the pH level is above 4.6. Citric acid is used in hundreds of different hot sauce varieties due to the minimal amount needed and its minimal flavor profile within a hot sauce.

Citric acid is used in a hot sauce as a preservative to increase the shelf life and extend the “best used by” date. In its powder form, it has a sour and tart taste that pairs well with the sweet and heat in many hot sauce varieties. Citric acid is derived from citrus fruits like lemons and limes and is approved by the FDA as being safe for consumption but does not contain vitamin C.

Not all hot sauces contain the naturally acidic ingredients necessary to preserve them. Many types of common hot sauce ingredients like vinegar and citric juices will bring the pH (potential hydrogen) level down to the point where harmful bacteria are killed off and the hot sauce is safe to consume for many months even after it is opened.

Generally speaking, the pH of a hot sauce should be between 3.4 and 4.6. This is below what the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) states is an environment where harmful bacteria cannot grow. Anything above 4.6 is on the alkaline side of the scale and needs other methods of preservation or additional additives to extend the shelf life.

If a hot sauce recipe does not contain a substance like vinegar, or citric juices as part of the recipe then it will need additives to preserve it like citric acid or other methods of preserving like pasteurization. Pasteurization is the process of heating just below boiling to kill the growth of bacteria. This process may alter the consistency, appearance, and flavor of a hot sauce. It could also be a costly operational process which is why alternatives like citric acid are used.

What is citric acid?

Citric acid is the manufactured byproduct of sucrose found in citrus fruits like lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. The concentrated powder or granulated form is used in many different condiments as well as fresh fruits and vegetables to enhance their flavors by preserving them. It occurs naturally in citrus fruits but lemons and limes, the most acidic of the citrus fruits, are most often used to create it.

Does citric acid have flavor?

Citric acid in powder form has a tart and sour flavor if it is consumed just plain. Used in a hot sauce it can help balance other flavors like sweetness. If you question its flavor it is OK to taste it plain without any harm to the body. With the minimal amount needed to act as a preservative in a hot sauce, the flavor is not as evident as other liquid-based preservatives like vinegar or raw lemon juice. Each of these preserving ingredients will have its own distinct flavors.

Does citric acid change pH?

A higher volume of citric acid will lower the pH of a hot sauce and this is what provides the preservation. This is commonly why it is used in many hot sauce recipes especially if ingredients that are on the alkaline side of the pH scale are used. By itself, the pH of citric acid can range from 3 to 6 depending on the manufacturer. However, it is difficult to test accurately in powder form, and adding liquids like water will alter the results. Always begin with adding minimal amounts and test often. Click this link for more on Why The pH Level Of Hot Sauce Is Important and get a simple pH meter here from Amazon.

Is citric acid OK in hot sauce?

Citric acid is used in over a hundred manufactured hot sauces. It is recognized by the FDA as being safe for consumption and there are no limits to the amount that can be added to foods. The only negative about the use of citric acid is the amount of sour or tart flavor that it may add but only if it is overused. Any slight sour flavoring pairs well with many hot peppers, spices, or other ingredients commonly used in hot sauce recipes. Like many ingredients, citric acid should be used in minimal amounts until a hot sauce recipe has been perfected.

Why is citric acid used in hot sauce?

Citric acid is used in hot sauce because it takes a minimal amount to preserve the sauce, doesn’t alter the flavor drastically, and is relatively inexpensive compared to other ingredients. The slight flavoring of citric acid works well with hot peppers, sugars, or other ingredients used in hot sauce because it can help balance each of these flavors and stabilize the pH.

How much citric acid to use in hot sauce?

½ teaspoon citric acid / 32 ounces hot sauce

If you have a new hot sauce recipe that is being developed begin by adding minimal amounts of citric acid and testing for taste as well as pH. As a general rule ¼ teaspoon equals 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. The amount of citric acid used in a hot sauce is determined by the other ingredients used. Another general rule is to use ½ teaspoon of powdered citric acid to every quart (32 ounces) of hot sauce. This becomes a minimal amount per bottle but changes as the volume of the hot sauce is created. Get a 1 lb. bag of citric acid by Milliard here from Amazon.

Does citric acid cause any health issues?

Citric acid is a natural derivative of processed lemons and limes. There is not a lot of research that leads to any negativity from consuming citric acid in any form or any method of its use. Always follow the manufacturer’s recommended use of any product if it is provided.

Other preservatives

Aside from the additives and ingredients discussed above, there are other ways that a hot sauce can get preserved. Refrigeration may be a costly endeavor but will certainly preserve a product before and after it is opened. Pasteurization methods can also be as equally costly and can create additional operational procedures.

Sodium benzoate, ascorbic acid, potassium sorbate, calcium sorbate, sorbic acid, and other additives are used in many condiments and hot sauce recipes to preserve them. This is common practice and each of these preservatives listed are also approved by the FDA but may offer different reasons for why they are used in a hot sauce recipe. Read more on The Challenges Of Preserving Hot Sauce And Controlling The pH.

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