Storage Tips

How to Store Your Produce So It Lasts Longer

by:
April 21, 2017

As you flip through the pages of Food52’s new cookbook Mighty Salads, you’ll notice right away that fresh produce is at the heart of any mighty salad—whether it’s a leafy salad strewn with grilled mushrooms and figs, a couscous salad that puts spring’s best baby artichokes center stage, or a steak salad made whimsical by a tangle of peppery greens, herbs, and charred red onions.

Shopping for beautiful produce is often the easy (and fun) part, especially at the height of the growing season when farmers markets are spilling over with ripe peaches, fat tomatoes, and zucchinis galore. But after you get your bounty home, that’s when reality sinks in. You may wonder: What was I thinking? I bought enough produce for a family of eight, not four! How can I fit all of this into my refrigerator? Should I just take a nap now?

I faced these questions many times over in the process of developing new recipes for Mighty Salads. Before diving into this project, I was a little lackadaisical about produce storage. But with 30 recipes to create (and test, and test again) over a six-month period, I had to be more intentional about creating strategies that allowed me to do my shopping over the weekends, and make Mighty Salads all week long.

While I don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules for produce storage, there are good rules-of-thumbs to follow. My approach begins with two similar but distinct questions:

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“For greens it is best to GENTLY wash them when you get them home and GENTLY shake the excess water off and put them in the damp Vejibag. There is absolutely no need to spin them as spinning can actually damage them. Also while lots of people say that it's best not to wash until you are ready to prepare my experience is the opposite when using a Vejibag because when you wash stuff gently you actually remove some of the slightly damaged spots as you wash and get off some of the offending bacteria so that things stay fresh and crisp longer! The key is to be GENTLE! Otherwise I love your ideas and will be putting them to use in my own kitchen. Thanks for the great and thorough article!”
— Sally E.
Comment

1. What steps need to be taken as soon as I get my produce home (e.g. washing)?

2. What is the best storage method for each type of produce to ensure maximum freshness?


home from the market

You've made it home from the farmer's market or the grocery store. Here's what you need to know:

  • Remove twisty ties, rubber bands, or other fasteners from your produce to prevent bruising and poor circulation.
  • Cut the green, leafy tops from radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, etc. They draw moisture out of the vegetables, causing them to go limp and lose flavor. Store the greens separately in a plastic or mesh bag. (And put them to good use!)
  • Hold off on washing or cutting produce ahead of time because it’ll deteriorate faster. (One exception is berries, believe it or not! They’ll last longer if given a diluted vinegar bath.) If pre-washed and ready-to-go produce makes meal prep easier, then go for it—just know that your produce won’t last as long. I typically limit my pre-washing to sturdy, leafy greens (kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and the like) because I’m much more likely to grab them mid-week if I’ve washed and separated the leaves from the stems. I don’t recommend pre-washing tender greens (like watercress or mache) or soft herbs—their leaves are too delicate to withstand multiple handlings or any trapped moisture.

  • If you choose to pre-wash, make sure to dry produce as well as possible; a salad spinner makes quick work of this step.

Storing produce to ensure freshness

There are three places to store produce: the fridge, the countertop, or a cool room or pantry. Each fruit or vegetable has its own preferred place.

Photo by James Ransom

For the fridge:

Lettuce and all kinds of leafy greens, artichokes, asparagus, beets, berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, corn, cucumbers, fennel, green beans, herbs (except basil), leeks, mushrooms, okra, peas, peppers, radicchio, radishes, turnips, scallions, zucchini

Most vegetables need a slightly humid yet breathable environment to stay fresh, and are happier if stored in something versus tossed in the fridge. (Note: If your tender greens still have the roots attached, wrap them in a damp paper towel before storing them.) Below are three storage options for the fridge that all work.

  • Mesh or cloth bags. Food52 recently sent me some of Vejibags' Fresh Vegetable Storage Bags to test (newly available in their Shop!), in a few different sizes. To use them, you wet the bag, wring it so it is just damp, then place your produce (washed or not) inside. Made from organic cotton, they’ve kept my produce fresher, for longer, than plastic storage bags due to their breathability. I prefer the x-large size, because it’s big enough for even monster-sized bunches of chard or collards. The key to success with these bags is keeping them damp by sprinkling them with water every few days.
  • Plastic storage bags. Toss the thin grocery store produce bags unless you’re using the contents within a day; they’re too porous to hold in moisture and keep produce fresh. Plastic sealable storage bags, in either quart or gallon-size, work well. If I’ve pre-washed my produce, I usually nestle a dry paper towel down in the bag to wick up excess moisture—and I’ll do the opposite by inserting a damp paper towel when I haven’t pre-washed. It’s important to leave the plastic bag partially unsealed, or poke holes in it so moisture isn’t trapped. And absolutely re-use your plastic bags! Rinse them after using if needed, and put them to use again and again.
  • Salad spinner. As Kristen wrote about here, if you can make room in your fridge for a salad spinner, lettuces and delicate salad greens will last up to a month. I’m 100 percent confident that this method works, but sadly, I’ve never had the opportunity to try it out because there’s never, ever enough room in my fridge.

Once you've decided on your storage vessel, into the fridge your produce goes. But not all areas of the fridge are created equal, and there is a strategy to using the space wisely.

  • The crisper, the coldest and most humid part of the refrigerator, is valuable real estate. These are the vegetables (stored in the aformentioned cloth or plastic bag) that get first dibs in mine: broccoli, cauliflower, celery, corn (with husks), green beans, and leafy greens. And did you know that celery does best when wrapped in foil? Neither did I until reading this article.
  • The top shelves near the front are the warmest part of the fridge. Keep your bagged cucumbers, peppers, and zucchini there, as they are the most sensitive to cold temperatures.

And a few more handy tips for refrigerator storage:

  • Some vegetables prefer a little more TLC. For the happiest asparagus and scallions, treat them like fresh flowers by storing them upright in a jar, with the ends submerged in a small amount of water and the tops loosely draped with an inverted plastic bag. The same idea applies for many herbs.
  • Pack your produce as loosely as you can in the fridge, and store fruit and vegetables separately. Most fruit releases ethylene gas which will cause produce in close proximity to spoil and lose flavor.

  • If you’ve bought packaged produce, such as bagged or boxed lettuce, there’s typically no need to transfer them to new packaging. And one word of advice on that triple-washed lettuce: yes, wash it before eating. I know it’s tempting to use it straight from the bag, but packaged lettuces can harbor harmful bacteria. Plus, a dunk in cold water will crisp it up.
  • For a particularly big haul from the market, put a sticky note on your fridge listing all of the produce you need to use up, in order of perishability. (Or maybe there’s an app that does this? If not, there should be!) Check out this nifty chart for which produce you should eat first. If you’re like me, despite my best intentions, something is likely to get pushed to the back of the fridge where it’s forgotten. I find it’s helpful to rearrange the produce in my fridge every few days, to make sure I’ve accounted for everything.

For the countertop:

Avocados, basil, bananas, citrus, eggplant, non-cherry stone fruit, pears, pineapple, mangoes, melons, tomatoes

  • Most fruit—avocados, peaches, cantaloupe, pineapple, etc.—should be left on the counter to ripen (in a pretty bowl perhaps?). You can transfer fully ripe fruit to the fridge to prolong its freshness, but return it to room temperature before consuming for best flavor. And should you ever refrigerate tomatoes? This article lays out pretty compelling evidence that refrigeration does minimal harm once tomatoes are fully ripe. But I’ll admit, I can’t bring myself to put any tomatoes in the fridge.
  • Confused about whether or not to refrigerate citrus? Me too. According to this article, the bottom line is that it’s fine to refrigerate, but like the fruits above, citrus tastes best when returned to room temperature. I find this last step of taking the chill off more important for oranges and tangerines I’m eating out of hand, versus lemons and limes I’m using as part of a recipe.
  • Eggplant should be stored on the countertop rather than in the fridge, which I’ll admit doesn’t seem intuitive. If exposed to cold temperatures, eggplant’s texture and flavor deteriorate quickly. Just make sure your eggplant has some personal space on the countertop away from tomatoes, avocados, and other fruit that produce ethylene gas.

For a cool room or pantry:

Apples, garlic, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, shallots, sweet potatoes, turnips, winter squashes

  • Moisture is the enemy for most fruit and vegetables that need cool storage. Remember to keep fruit and vegetables separate (and potatoes and onions, too) to prolong freshness, and store in a cardboard box or basket lined with newspaper to absorb any moisture until you’re ready to use. Apples are a bit more forgiving of the cool, dry storage rule: they also fare well in the crisper drawer, draped loosely with a damp paper towel.

What to do with expiring produce

Even when fastidiously following all of these rules-of-thumb, life just has a habit of getting in the way. If you open your fridge to discover wilting greens or produce that’s quickly going downhill (but hasn’t spoiled or gone slimy), you still have options!

Here are a few ways to use up less-than-mighty produce:

  • Try reviving greens, herbs, radishes, and more by soaking them in icy water for about 15 to 20 minutes. Slicing them first will maximize water absorption and crispness.
  • Pound greens and herbs into a green sauce or pesto (this kale salsa verde and Genius herb jam are two favorites of mine).
  • Fry herbs for mighty salads! Hot oil doesn’t discriminate between perfect and not-so-perfect herbs.
  • Or even easier, make herb oil by whirling wilty herbs with olive oil in a blender.
  • Make a big batch of vegetable soup or stock.
  • Roast (or simmer) root vegetables until tender, then purée or coarsely mash.
  • Make Genius roasted applesauce (with all apples or a mix of apples and pears).
  • If all else fails, then compost! Head here for 3 ways to start composting.
  • Plenty more ideas here!

Mighty Salads, the new cookbook from Food52, and the clever Vejibags that EmilyC tried are both available in our Shop!

What are your first steps when getting produce home from the market or grocery store?

35 Comments

Patrick July 13, 2017
Want your berries to last longer, try killing the bacteria via hot water. See this article from the NYTimes http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/dining/26curi.html
 
Zoe May 7, 2017
This is the best way I've found to successfully keep cilantro fresh in the fridge: Buy organic cilantro. Bring it home and remove the twist tie. Cut off and discard the stems unless you plan to use them. Gently wash in cold water a couple of times, removing the damaged and rotten leaves. Gently fluff dry in a clean kitchen towel. Store in a clean plastic bag with a dry paper towel included to absorb moisture. Keep loosely stored, not squished, in the closed plastic bag and replace the paper towel every couple of days, also removing any damaged or rotting pieces. This process has worked well for years for me and a bunch of cilantro will last a week or more this way. Cilantro always has a place in my kitchen and is a staple!
 
Sally E. May 7, 2017
I do basically the same thing Zoe except I use a Vejibag. It seems like the key is to keep in the humidity so it doesn't go limp but keep it from being wet. And also removing anything that is beginning to go bad immediately helps it from spreading!
 
LeslieF April 29, 2017
Loved this article Emily and I am looking forward to trying out plenty of your delicious salads in the new cook book!
 
Author Comment
EmilyC May 2, 2017
Thanks Leslie! : )
 
Margo M. April 25, 2017
I have found 3 products that really work for keeping veggies and herbs fresh. All are available on line. Produce in "Green Bags" last longer b/c the bags let the ethylene gas out. They are reusable. <br />"Blue Apple" packets placed near the veggies and fruits absorb those same gases that hasten rotting. You don't need the plastic Blue Apple container, just the packets which last 3 - 4 months. Commercial produce shippers have been using the same technique for years.<br />And, the herbs last much longer in Herb Keepers. There are several on the market and none is expensive. I have 3 of them in use all summer long. Here in the South, the frig runs a lot so I must keep the herbs in the keeper in the warmer areas so they don't freeze.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 25, 2017
All good to know, thanks Margo!
 
Jean C. April 25, 2017
Living in Arizona & trying to keep my produce fresh is a challenge for me. Tomatoes turn soft within 24 hours when left on counter-avocados on counter can become dark but not soft quickly, potatoes & onions are a challenge to say the least. Yes we have AC, yes we even supplement it with fans--I have COPD so a cool living space is a necessity & we do not skimp on keeping it cool. We love fresh produce & I love to cook but the summer months give me a challenge. Any suggestions for prolonging the life of our produce would be appreciated.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 25, 2017
Hi Jean -- Gosh, this is a tough one. I'm sure you've thought of this, but my best advice is to buy the freshest produce you possibly can -- and unless you're going to use the produce immediately, buy things like tomatoes and avocados just a bit under-ripe. I find that with tomatoes, storing them out of the sunlight makes a big difference. I'll often line a shallow wooden box or crate with newspaper, and store my tomatoes in a single layer in a coolish, dry spot that doesn't get direct sunlight. A tip I picked up from Ina Garten (I believe) on avocados is to put them in the fridge after they soften up (but before they're fully ripe). You'll have more leeway, since the fridge slows down the ripening process.
 
Smaug April 23, 2017
The coldest spot in my refrigerator (and, I believe, most moderately priced fridges) is the top shelf under the freezer compartment. Not mentioned are cloth bags (essential for mushrooms) and baskets (onions, sweet potatoes, russets etc)
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 23, 2017
Good point! -- not all fridges are designed the same. And those Vejibags are cloth (organic cotton) and work quite nicely for mushrooms.
 
Smaug April 24, 2017
So they are- from the price mentioned I was assuming they were spun gold.
 
Sally E. April 23, 2017
Similar to using paper towels and foil for celery the Vejibag does the same thing: it keeps the celery in a humid environment so it doesn't go bad. And since the Vejibags are reuseable you aren't having to throw out paper towels and foil!
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 23, 2017
I will try celery in mine!
 
BerryBaby April 23, 2017
Celery will last for weeks with this method of storage. Heard ot years ago on FN. Rinse celery, keeping stalks intact, wrap in paper towels, then wrap and seal in aluminum foil. Keeps for a good two weeks.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 23, 2017
And if the celery starts to lose its crispness, then it's the perfect excuse to make Marcella Hazan's braised celery on this site! : )
 
oregon C. April 22, 2017
Learned a lot here -- thanks for the great article. Ive been trying hard to reduce the amount of veggies I have to toss -- discovered the 'blue apple' in a specialty grocery a few years ago & it has definitely helped cut losses. It's pretty amazing -- I'll leave town for a week & return to usable cilantro. Curious of you have tried it.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 22, 2017
Thanks!! So glad this is helpful! I have not heard of the Blue Apple but will look it up since cilantro and I have a bad track record! : )
 
Allison C. April 28, 2017
I tried the Blue Apple and found it made no difference in preserving my produce. I have had the best success with wrapping produce in paper towels and placing in plastic storage bags, as this article says. The key is to keep the moisture away!
 
cookinginvictoria April 22, 2017
Great article with lots of useful tips, Emily! I am definitely guilty of buying too much produce and overloading my fridge when everything is in season, so I read this with interest. Who knew that eggplants could go on the counter? (P.S. I am just loving the salad book. Looking forward to trying many of your amazing recipes!)
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 22, 2017
Aw, thanks Paula!! You and me both on buying too much! And thanks for the kind words on Mighty Salads. I am LONG overdue on making your gorgeous kale caeser--need to rectify that soon! : )
 
John S. April 22, 2017
Regarding Basil, I grow my own in the summer, but in the winter, I am fortunate that I can get fresh basil from my local grocery store. I buy the clump of stems bound together with a twist tie and when I get home, remove the tie, any ruined leaves, trim the cut stems a bit, gently wash and then put in a glass of water like picked flowers but with the plastic storage bag pulled up around the glass containing the basil and leave it on the counter, like a little hot house. Lasts up to two weeks and sometimes starts growing roots.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 22, 2017
John--these are GREAT tips for basil. Thanks for sharing them here!!
 
Victoria C. April 22, 2017
This is a great article for me. Two years ago I moved to the country (the VERY rural country) from NYC, and my biggest struggle has been how to store all the veggies I buy on my once-a-week trip to the grocery store AND which ones to eat first. Over time, I've done pretty well figuring it out, and when summer comes, I'm off the hook because my farm stand is five minutes away, but this article is very helpful, especially the chart, which I was able to print. I use the white mesh bags I bought for vegetables, but I am going to check out the Vejibags. Thanks for all the info and tips.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 22, 2017
You're welcome Victoria -- so glad this is helpful! Do check out the Vejibags. I really like them!
 
Claudia April 28, 2017
What chart? I would love a chart. I've been back through the article twice to find one, but can't. Am I blind?
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 28, 2017
Hi Claudia -- the article includes a hyperlink to the chart. Here's the direct link! https://food52.com/blog/13047-a-handy-chart-for-how-long-fresh-produce-will-last
 
Claudia April 28, 2017
Thank you!!! I've printed it out. <br />
 
luvcookbooks April 22, 2017
Great article! Look forward to buying the salad book at the pop up shop!
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 22, 2017
Thanks Meg! I'll be at the pop-up shop today--hope to see you there!!
 
luvcookbooks April 23, 2017
Going today, alas! Hope to meet you another time.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 23, 2017
Have fun!! : )
 
luvcookbooks April 26, 2017
Have Mighty Salads, Ice Cream and a sage temporary tattoo!
 
Sally E. April 21, 2017
Hi Emily! Great article with lots of good ideas. I have a couple tweaks to what you have said since I've been using Vejibags for several years and had amazing luck with them. For greens it is best to GENTLY wash them when you get them home and GENTLY shake the excess water off and put them in the damp Vejibag. There is absolutely no need to spin them as spinning can actually damage them. Also while lots of people say that it's best not to wash until you are ready to prepare my experience is the opposite when using a Vejibag because when you wash stuff gently you actually remove some of the slightly damaged spots as you wash and get off some of the offending bacteria so that things stay fresh and crisp longer! The key is to be GENTLE! Otherwise I love your ideas and will be putting them to use in my own kitchen. Thanks for the great and thorough article!
 
Author Comment
EmilyC April 21, 2017
Oh thanks Sally -- this is all great to know! I'm glad you commented and shared your advice on how to best use them!