Produce 101: Storage tips for newbies

Eatwell fruitsMy entire adult life — which I date loosely as beginning from my first credit card, at age 17, so half my life ago — I have been a compulsive grocery shopper. You would think I’d lived through a time of famine, or perhaps been raised in a Soviet Bloc country. I remember doing my grocery shopping in college on the motorcycle I secretly owned (my parents had said no way), and filling up the classy milk crate strapped on the back while trying to balance two plastic bags on each handlebar … and work the clutch. I was so uncool, but mainly it’s a miracle I never wrecked.

Even just a few years ago my routine was to hit the supermarket once a week, fill a cart full with plastic bags of produce, throw it all in the refrigerator — after first tossing out the produce that was rotting in its hermetically sealed plastic shrouds from the previous trip. Half the time the Potato and I would then go out to eat, and I would proceed to cook what I felt like later in the week, shrugging when I wasted the rest. (I also used to flip off little old ladies in the crosswalk.)

I could be so cavalier because the food was cheap to me, but mainly because there was no story or face associated with it. Now that I shop at the farmers market twice a week and get a biweekly Eatwell Farm CSA box, things have changed around here. The fridge is half empty at all times, and everything in it is just a few days old. I feel almost tearful if I fail to eat a head of organic lettuce in time. It’s not about the cost, although now that I’m paying $1.75 for that head of lettuce it’s a tad more painful, but about the effort that I know went into growing it. Kind of like why nobody minds throwing away a half-eaten Whopper, but would never leave even half a bite of peach pie that a friend baked scratch.

I’ve learned some basic things about produce storage that I can’t believe took me this long. Those of you who already know not to seal lettuce tightly in a plastic bag, go read something else. (Such as this excellent post by “food economist” Parke Wilde about putting together the farm subsidy, earmark, and campaign donor databases — it’s a visual display of Big Ag pork on so many levels.) This is for those farmers-market newbies, and for my younger, wasteful self.

All produce exudes ethylene gas — it’s what ripens it, as well as what makes it decay; some manufacture it faster than others. Increased levels of ethylene within a bag released by the produce itself stimulate the production of more ethylene, thus ripening — and overripening. This is why if you put a slightly unripe tomato or a peach in a brown paper bag it will ripen faster than unenclosed.

Contrary to what you may have heard, organic produce does not “go bad” faster than conventional industrial produce in my experience. According to Marion Nestle’s new tome”What to Eat,” supermarket produce is often a week or more past being harvested, more if it’s coming from, say, Chile. Produce from the farmers market, usually no more than a day or two old, will easily last a week or more if stored properly, depending on what it is. Here are some tips I rounded up from the other Ethicureans.

  • Apples: Cool, dry place or refrigerate — but not near carrots, as apples release a lot of ethylene gas that can turn carrots bitter.
  • Avocados: Never refrigerate unless left over. Squeeze lemon on the cut side to keep it from turning brown in the fridge.
  • Berries: I put a paper towel in a large, shallow Tupperware or small cookie sheet and dump them on it in a single layer, covered loosely with another paper towel. As long as they’re not touching, ripe strawberries will keep OK for a week. Corn Maven likes to wash, dry, and freeze hers within a day or two of purchasing, before they go bad — great in smoothies that way, she says.
  • Basil: I stick mine in a glass with an inch or two of water on the counter, like flowers, and it’s fine for two or three days. The Man of La Muncha wraps his in damp paper towels and puts in the crisper.
  • Cabbage: Loose, unbagged, in the crisper for 2-3 weeks. Peel off outer leaves when you’re ready to use.
  • Carrots: Cut the tops off if they have them and toss (or feed to a horse or goat, says Miss Steak). Refrigerate the carrots in a loosely closed plastic bag.
  • Celery: Wrap it in tightly in tinfoil and refrigerate. It will stay crisp for up to two weeks. I think my mother got this from Hints from Heloise but it totally works.
  • Green onions: Use ASAP, but wrapped in paper towel and unbagged they’ll do OK in the fridge for a few days.
  • Herbs other than basil: Store in a glass with a few inches of water in the fridge, or wrapped in a paper towel and left in a partially open bag in the crisper. If you’re only planning to use a little, dry the rest — I just wash, wrap in a clean cloth with a rubber band around the stem, and then hang upside down in a warm dark place.
  • Lettuce: Store heads unwashed, loosely in an open plastic bag with the root end at the bottom and a paper towel laid over the leaves at the open end. If it’s mixed greens or baby spinach, shake the bag up and replace the paper towel every day.
  • Peppers, hot: On the counter; they also freeze well and you don’t even half to thaw them to chop them.
  • Peppers, sweet: In a plastic bag, not sealed tightly.
  • Plums and pears: Ripen on counter, only refrigerate as a last resort as they go mealy.
  • Potatoes, onions, and garlic: The Butter Bitch advises that you stash them someplace dark and cool that is *not* the refrigerator (too much moisture!)
  • Radishes, turnips: Cut the green tops off almost at the root and bag them separately; wash and throw in soups or pasta sauces. I’ve been putting my rootlike veggies in waxed paper bags, which breathe better than plastic.
  • Summer squash and zucchini: In an open plastic bag, not too many packed together.
  • Tomatoes: On the counter until they’re almost overripe, then to the fridge shelf for making salsa. Cherry tomatoes I keep in the fridge for snacking.

foodstorage_big.jpgIf your favorite stuff isn’t on that list, I also stumbled across this handy “periodic table of produce” that Dennis Craven over on Slashfood scanned in from a recent Real Simple magazine. It covers how to store produce as well as how long you can expect it to last. Alas, it also repeats the organic vs. industrial shelf-life misconception, and I don’t think any produce should ever be wrapped tightly in plastic as advised, but otherwise it’s generally on target. He has it posted in two parts; I merged the two halves in Photoshop for easier printing and posting. (Click on the thumbnail for a big version.)

This has nothing to do with starving children in Africa, by the way. It’s about respect for the people growing your food, and about waste. This East Bay Express cover story on waste cites a 2004 study found that food was the largest of the 45 categories of stuff in California’s landfills. It’s biodegradable, sure, but why should the birds and the rats get to eat what you paid a premium for?

Please chime in with your own suggestions — or disagree with ours.

Note: I’m going on vacation for a few days to a place where not only is there no Internet access, there’s not even a phone. I’ll reply to meat CSA and other e-mails on Saturday.

6 Responsesto “Produce 101: Storage tips for newbies”

  1. Tamara says:

    One note about potatoes and onions; store them away from each other, as they both can cause the other to ripen too quickly. The beauty of buying potatoes and onions rests in their long shelf life, but you’ll lose a lot of it if they’re tossed into a basket together.

    Also, a great book to get that covers this discussion in fuller detail (including buying, storage, freezing, drying tips and tons of useful lists) is KEEPING FOOD FRESH by Janet Bailey. I’ve been referring to my copy for close to 20 years now. It should be required reading for at-home foodies!


  2. Omniwhore says:

    Leaving the seed in the avocado also keeps it from going brown. Also, okra can be frozen — I usually cut the tops off and lay it on a cookie sheet and let them freeze individually, then I dump them in a ziplock baggie.  When I’m ready to cook them, I pour a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roast them in the oven for about 15-20 min.

    You’ll find that your vendors at the farmer’s market are usually more than willing to discuss ways to store food, if there’s an item you’re wondering about.

  3. DairyQueen says:

    Tamara — That explains why my potatoes always get all shriveled and wrinkly in a less than a month. I was wondering how people stored them wthrough winter! Dohp. And I will check out that book, thanks.

  4. Tamara says:

    Glad to help!

  5. I just printed this out and it is going on the fridge — with the delivery of our CSA box, proper storage was becoming a big issue. Danke!

  6. Toddarooski says:

    Here’s some Alton Brown tips on storing tomatoes. He recommends not ever putting them in the fridge…

    “Now when you get them home, don’t keep them in direct sunlight, okay, no matter how pretty they look. Oh, and never put them in the refrigerator, okay? If they drop below 50 degrees a flavor compound called (Z)-3-dexenal is just going to flip itself off like a chemical switch … permanently.”