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How to Extend the Lives of Your Cheap-But-Beloved Plastic Containers

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There's no shortage of options for storing your food. There are glass containers (which many of members of the Food52 team swear by—they don't absorb smell, they don't stain, you can heat in them and eat from them and admire them from afar); there are stackable stainless steel containers; there is the very practical option of simply covering the ceramic vessel you used for serving (especially if that vessel comes with a handy lid for that very purpose!); and there are plastic containers of all persuasions.

But in the world of restaurants, "delis"—the flimsy, semi-disposable plastic containers that are cheap and stackable, with one-size-fits-all tops—are king. They're not entirely leak-proof (I know this because of the multiple times my notebook has been soaked with salad dressing or soup after my commute home) or particularly beautiful (in the traditional sense), but they're inexpensive, lightweight, space-saving, and multi-purpose. Our own test kitchen shines with them.

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We're talking about the dudes on the left.
We're talking about the dudes on the left. Photo by James Ransom

"I know it's very hipster Brooklyn to want to store everything in [glass jars]," restaurateur and chef Sara Jenkins told me, "but they aren't modular, and when they break it's potentially disastrous, as shattered glass in the walk-in [refrigerator] isn't anything anyone wants." And sturdier plastic containers, like Cambros, come with a bigger price tag.

But despite the many advantages of deli containers, they pick up smells and stains and grease slicks (and bring up health and environmental concerns—but more on that later).

Figuring that restaurant chefs, for whom delis are practically appendages, would know how to keep quarts and pints in as good condition as possible, we asked a few for their best practices. And we found out that there's really no magical formula for extending their lives (though we do have some tips—click here!). Immortality, still unsolved. Restaurants reuse the containers—running them through the dishwasher or sanitizing them in extremely hot and soapy water—until they start to crack or break down or take on extremely strong scents; then they throw them away. And you can do the same.

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One of the biggest advantage of delis, after all, is that they're practically disposable in the sense that we tend to consider anything so cheap—500 for under $40—expendable (though, as Sara pointed out, this is not a very environmentally-friendly mindset).

Deli containers and the baking soda that (might) remove that awful smell it's harboring.
Deli containers and the baking soda that (might) remove that awful smell it's harboring. Photo by James Ransom

And then there's the matter of heating: Of course, it's entirely up to you whether you choose to use—and especially, to heat (microwaving, dishwashing, filling with hot liquids or foods)—plastic containers; the question of whether some types of plastics leach chemicals as they degrade with age and high temperatures is still up in the air (see NPR, the New York Times, the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide and the Huffington Post)—and controversial: Just check out the comments section on this article about plastic quart containers on the Kitchn and the Pioneer Woman.

While some restaurant kitchens do avoid heating delis (Caroline Fidanza, chef-owner of Saltie in Brooklyn, said she'd would never heat anything in plastic and that she waits until food cools before storing it), others run them through the dishwasher, where the water can be as hot as 150° F. (Our own Test Kitchen Chef and restaurant veteran Josh Cohen admits to dishwashing delis even though he avoids microwaving them, a conscious contradiction of sorts.)

So yes, super-cheap delis are indispensable to restaurants of all sorts, for all kinds of applications (even for chefs who don't love delis, like Jeremiah Stone of Contra and Wildair, who orders other containers in bulk from Canada yet still relies on pints and quarts for bringing organized mise en place to travel and events). But home kitchens—at least my own—are not restaurants: I'm not as concerned about breaking a glass jar and I'm not cycling through close to as many containers. In my mind, home kitchens are a place where we have the power to reduce waste and control our environments. And with all that considered, I find myself thinking, Why take the risk with plastic containers at all?

From this point on, this pint container can pretty much only be used for cheese.
From this point on, this pint container can pretty much only be used for cheese. Photo by James Ransom

And yet, I own so many. I carry them home from the Food52 test kitchen; I tote them back from the grocery store filled with olives; I decant sugar and flour into them. And I don't want to keep throwing them away.

So whether you actively buy delis or you inherit them, here are some ways to take advantage of their best qualities (and to make them last):

  1. While they're useful for storing food that might stink up or stain a more expensive plastic container, you still don't want to toss them with each use (at that point, it's just like using plastic bags). So, to extend their reusability whilst taking advantage of the fact that you don't care so much about them, use a marker or piece of tape to designate certain containers for the smelly (onions, coffee), the oily (salad dressings, garlic confit), the stainy (turmeric-brightened curry, tomato sauce), and the acidic (vinaigrettes, pickles). Then repeat, storing like in like.
  2. And not all stains and scents are permanent! Here are tips for getting rid of the stink and the turmeric tinge.
  3. They're particularly great for storing dry pantry ingredients (especially in a closed cupboard, where you won't have to look at them as "display pieces"), and are big/wide enough to dip measuring spoons and cups (in our test kitchen, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and yeast all live in delis, as do chocolate chips, cocoa powder, nuts, dried fruit, etc. etc. etc.).
  4. Keep some on hand so you can send guests home with leftovers without stressing about losing a precious container, or for when you're transporting food to a gathering where you're not sure you'll be able to keep track of its vessel (like at a big potluck); they're handy when you want to prep ingredients or components of a dish (for a salad, say) before schlepping and assembling.
  5. While some types are specifically designed to be freezer-safe, we've experienced frequent cracking with extreme cold (and, relatedly, have found that they're not ideal for storing homemade ice cream, as their diameter is a bit too small to make a nice swoop with an ice cream scooper. We prefer to store churned ice cream in a loaf pan or baking dish.)
  6. When you're cleaning, be sure to get under the grooves and indentations around the circumference of the lid. You can even press on the lip to flip it inside out and expose the hidden area to soap and water.
  7. Take off any labels or tape before you put them in the dishwasher.
  8. Once you've cleaned your containers, wipe them with a paper towel (yes, that means more waste) to absorb any remaining grease or fat (a tip we learned from Lucy Nieboer at Buvette). Let them air-dry completely before storing. Chef Jeremiah Stone of Wildair and Contra dries the delis in a pyramid formation—this saves space while exposing every container to the air.
This neat and organized pantry is brought to you by delis.
This neat and organized pantry is brought to you by delis. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Are you a plastic fanatic? Or do you exclusively use glass? Tell us in the comments.