Here's Photo Proof That You Really Should Wash Your Leafy Greens

July 25, 2018

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.

One way to use those greens

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“AND, use the rinse water to water your plants. They love it.”
— Gail M.

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.

Here's a little photo evidence that my salad spinner is not for naught:

  • Cilantro
Doesn't look so dirty!
But it was hiding all of this grit.
  • Rainbow chard
This chard looked very clean prior to its rinse-off.
But a-ha! Lots of little dirt specks.
  • Red leaf lettuce
Lettuce takes a bath.
And yes, it did need it.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • boymeetsgirlmeetsfood
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    Gail Merriam
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  • Nancy
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


boymeetsgirlmeetsfood October 10, 2020
Completely agree that a wash is necessary! I used to think there was nothing worse than a gritty salad, salsa etc, and then my MIL made the horrible discovery of a steamed snail amongst some homegrown silverbeet...(poor snail!).
Gail M. September 22, 2018
AND, use the rinse water to water your plants. They love it.
RHo September 22, 2018
Great idea!
Caroline S. August 23, 2021
To wash our produce is the reminder that our CSA farmer always posts at the top of the board each week. It's especially true when you know how close the bunch of veg is to the field where it was grown. Rain falls on the plants and splashes soil up and it hides in the crinkles! Your houseplants or the bushes just outside the door will thank you for remembering them rather than pouring the soil/grit down the drain
judy September 13, 2018
My FIRST rinse ALWAYS has a couple of tablespoons EACH of baking soda and vinegar in it. I sprinkle my produce with baking soda, then the vinegar. It fizzes nicely. I'll toss that around for a minute or so to make sure all the produce is well coated with this mixture. This lifts not only the dirt, but a lot of the pesticide/chemical residue that is present. The, I cover the produce with water and swish around, drain through the basket of my spinner. Then I do a SECOND water bath just covering the produce with water and swishing fro a minute. Then pour out. If it seems particularly dirty, I might do an additional plain water rinse. If you think this is not really necessary, think of the difference of washing your hands with and without soap. The water rinse gets the surface residue off, but doesn't really clean them. The addition of soap adds an element of solvent in which the dirt can lift from your hands. Well the baking soda/vinegar rinse does the same. Try this added step and you will truly be amazed at how much brighter your produce taste. Even organic and already washed. So worth the effort. I now have a medium size plastic storage container with lid that sits on my sink and an old wine bottle with a pour spout with the vinegar in it under my sink. Quick access to both whenever I need them for a quick produce wash. Whole Produce? Dampen with water and take a small handful of baking soda--rub all over the piece and scrub like a sugar scrub for your skin. Does an excellent job of cleaning away dirt, and pulling off the wax coating on many fruits and veg such as apples or cucumbers or carrots. Sometimes I find I need to do that twice. But now I have clean whole fruit as well. I do one of thee with EVERY piece of produce I eat except raspberries--too soft.
Dr.Insomnia September 13, 2018
There's some evidence that eating a little dirt might be good for our immune systems, especially children (that might be the benefit they get from putting everything in their mouths). If it's gritty, contains parasites, or pesticides, that's obviously bad. But I wonder if what you're advocating is too clean, from a health perspective. I honestly don't know as it's not my area of expertise. I just wonder.
J July 26, 2018
Thanks to Food52 for a well-documented article and to commenters for the great tip of adding a bit of vinegar to my greens-washing water. Before washing, I remove the base of lettuce so that the greens will freely float--and, yup, there's a lot of grit that falls below. With leafy greens, I swish and flick several times. My Farmers' Market produce purveyors are all organic, so I never buy broccoli--only cauliflower, so that I can pick off with tweezers the (probably dozen) green worms. I'm a wimp about worms, and applaud the cooks who are willing to eat organic broccoli, worms and all!
Nancy July 25, 2018
Editor - please notify us at the top that this is a vintage (rerun) article.
BerryBaby July 25, 2018
Years ago I recall a TV cook who swore celery only needed a 'wipe down '! I gasped everytime I saw that. Celery needs a good ckeaning. People must have voiced their concern as the next season they were running it under water.
Sue L. May 14, 2018
Plus, a lot of lettuce carries e-coli be ause workers use the fields as a bathroom. My husband spent 5 days in the hospital last month with blood poisoning from e-coli. Dr said it was probably from salads he eats when we eat out. I had to give him IV antibiotics 2 weeks at home. Our food is dangerous. Now i don't trust agged pre-washed salads.
Sue L. May 14, 2018
I. bought a pre-packaged salad at Randalls a while back and it had a big dead ug with wings. I took it back, showed them the bug, and all they said was you can pick out another one. I told her what if I'd eaten down to the bottom and then found it instead of it being on the top? I told her I'd never buy another one and was writing corporate. Disgusting. I cut all my greens, swish them in a plastic tub then pick them up without distubing the water. Then they get spin dry.
Dr.Insomnia November 3, 2017
As mentioned by others, leafy greens can carry snails. And those snails can carry rat lungworm. You do not want rat lungworm.
fur8elise July 20, 2017
I am curious, whether or not these are the same people who don't think it necessary to wash hands after using the bathroom.
judy July 20, 2017
I wash all my produce in vinegar and baking soda solution. Amazing the taste difference, let alone how much residue and dirt comes off. worth the effort!
susan G. July 17, 2017
A related issue is grains: I took a macrobiotic cooking class years ago. We were shown the teacher's technique for rinsing rice, but told that kasha (buckwheat groats) didn't need rinsing. In my enthusiasm, I rinsed the groats (put in a bowl, cover with water, drain the water, repeat). I was alarmed to see dead bugs rise to the surface, which had not been seen on visual inspection. I still don't take anything for granted.
SF July 17, 2017
My husband is a molecular biologist/virology professor. He runs a university lab that does research on various human diseases and ways to prevent them. He often cites the saying, "A solution to pollution is dilution." Meaning, in this case, that while washing food (or hands) may not remove all potential contamination, depending on the pathogen involved and the washing method, washing can still "dilute the pollution" by reducing the amount of a pathogen you are exposed to. It's all a numbers game. Just because a given cleaning method may not completely eradicate a pathogen does not mean it is useless or a waste of time. If you reduce the amount of pathogen exposure, you can reduce both the chance and severity of an illness. (My father was a surgeon who regularly washed his hands before operating on someone. I wonder if the Epicurious writer were his patient whether she would tell him not to bother?)
Julia July 16, 2017
I fill a bowl with ice water and a cap full of white vinegar and, when I add the produce, the grit literally jumps off !!
cmignac July 16, 2017
People eat produce without washing it first?????? Blecch. And, lazy.
Natasha July 16, 2017
Friends, food borne contamination such as bacterial contamination on produce, is real and can cause sickness and, in some cases, be deadly. At our house, we wash all fruits and veggies with a few drops of ordinary dishwashing soap liquid in the water, then thoroughly rinse and dry the produce.
I almost never eat salad, particularly baby salad, spinach or strawberries out in restaurants or other friends' homes due to having been sick so MANY times within 30 minutes to 1 hour of eating, from improperly washed food, including "pre-washed" spinach and lettuce that was contaminated. Such contamination can easily happen in fields and during picking, including when farmworkers do not have access to adequate sanitation (i.e. toliets and running water with soap to thoroughly wash their hands) or time to use such facilities, if provided.
Maureen July 16, 2017
After reading this I googled rat lungworm and discovered it has spread to Florida and probably will get to the rest of the USA. It's disgusting! I just tasted unwashed strawberries at a farm stand yesterday!
fur8elise July 16, 2017
There usually aren't sinks with soap and water by the portable toilets in the fields.
Alexis V. July 16, 2017
It is interesting to read that I was not the only one surprised to read that article on Epicurious the other day. I actually sent a note to Epicurious stating that I considered it a dangerous article written by a lazy cook, given the food born diseases that can occur, especially on produce that will not be cooked. It's great to see that my (some might call it obsession) fastidious approach to clean and healthy food is vindicated by Sarah Jampel's experiment. I was every single vegetable and fruit that comes into the kitchen in a vegetable rinse/cold water mixture before it is stored in the refrigerator. This gives me the peace of mind that no one is going to become ill from food-borne disease from the produce, which allows me to enjoy my meals.
ilugtsd July 22, 2017
Ok... you know bacteria can grow on your produce in the refrigerator, right? Best to wash just before eating.
Penny H. July 16, 2017
I swish fresh spinach or other greens in a sink full of water, then drain them in a colander. Then I use any water clinging to the leaves to cook them in a skillet just until they are soft - not overcooked. Salad greens - even those that are supposedly already washed get a shower in my trusty colander too.