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