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.

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.

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.


Gail M. September 22, 2018
AND, use the rinse water to water your plants. They love it.
RHo September 22, 2018
Great idea!
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.