A few years ago, I took home a cicada that was hiding in a bunch of curly kale from a grocery store in Harlem. This past fall, I found six bugs in a bunch of escarole from the farmers market (some dead, some alive). And over the weekend, I spotted a snail (a live snail!) on a bunch of purple kale at the Park Slope Food Co-Op.
These are among the reasons that every time I wash my greens, I am grateful I've taken the time—and it can really be just five minutes—to do so. I'm not grossed out by the insects and the dirt in my leaves (I like to think it's a great sign, a welcome reminder of where our food comes from, and a miracle of resilient life), but I am glad that none of it ended up in my dinner.
Which is why I was surprised to read an article on Epicurious that made a case for not washing produce. It's a messy, time-consuming hassle, the writer Becky Hughes argued, that creates a barrier to eating vegetables without even eliminating "all of the farm chemicals and the inevitable germs." Her last point? The anecdotal evidence that she's still alive and well to this day.
Hughes did say if there is "visible dirt on a head of lettuce, or grit in a bunch of parsley, [she]'ll (grudgingly) give it a rinse," but I, for one, know I've been fooled by clean-looking leaves one too many times. I will never forget the lentil salad I ruined by neglecting to wash the spinach. The grit crunched between my teeth with every bite.
As a believer in washing leaves, whether I'm planning to cook them or eat them raw, I wanted to make sure I wasn't cuckoo. Greens can be in need of a rinse even if they look totally clean, right? I soaked cilantro, chard, and red leaf lettuce—all of which looked fairly clean to begin with—in cold water, then carefully removed the leaves and photographed the remaining grime that settled on the bottom of the bowl.
The initial water soak eliminated most of the larger specks of dirt—and once I gave the greens a spin in the salad spinner, I saw that the water that had collected in the leaves was a brownish shade I would not readily consume.
I don't mean to fearmonger, or to even suggest that this amount of grit and dirt will harm you. I'm merely saying that there's a reason to wash your leafy greens (even if you're going to cook them), and that the few minutes it takes to remove the grime might get you a better taste and texture, too.
As far as kitchen tools go, I consider the salad spinner an essential one (and hey, did you know you can also use it to dry delicate clothing items?)—but you can always just use a bowl of water and a tea towel.
We originally shared this story in July 2017, but we always welcome a reminder to wash our greens. Do you wash leafy greens? What about other produce? Tell us in the comments below.