Kitchen Hacks

This Strawberry-Washing Hack Is All Over the Internet. But Does It Work?

July  9, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham

If you're like us, every time you hear about a kitchen hack—whether it's advice from grandma or trending on TikTok—you wonder: But does it actually work? In The Kitchen Scientist, we're asking author Nik Sharma (whose new book, The Flavor Equation, comes out in October!) to put it to the test.


I’d read a few reports about folks washing strawberries in salt water to get rid of worms and other types of bugs, but hadn’t considered doing it myself. To be honest, washing with tap water has never let me down.

But when the editors at Food52 reached out and asked me if I would be willing to test the method that’s been circulating on TikTok (see here, and here, and here), I was intrigued: Is this something that I should be adopting into my kitchen repertoire?

To test this popular method, I decided to run a simple experiment. I purchased strawberries from three different sources, cleaned them with either salted water or tap water, and then examined if the runoff contained any bugs of any kind.

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Question

Does salted water drive hidden bugs out of strawberries?

The theory behind this method

When salt comes into contact with bugs, it draws out water through osmosis (the same mechanism by which vegetables, like eggplant and tomato slices, and salt-preserved eggs are prepared). As the bugs lose their internal water and several other biological mechanisms begin to take a hit (for example, the proteins that perform important structural and functional roles, like enzymes, stop working), they become uncomfortable and come out of the fruit, in search of a less-salty home. Some of them might perish (depending on how much salt is used and for how long they’re exposed).

My simple experimental design

The experiment for each treatment was repeated thrice. The strawberries were rinsed, then left to sit in either plain water or water in which salt (respectively 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon of salt in 2 cups of water) was dissolved. After 30 minutes, the strawberries were removed, and the water closely inspected for bugs.


Results

In my first experimental run, the strawberries that were rinsed and left in plain water had a few small spiders that came running out! I expected a bit of dirt and a bug or two, but not spiders. They weren’t that big (a little under ¼-inch in size) and could be easily washed by running with tap water, yet still enough to be unnerving.

However, my test sample, where the fruit were soaked in salted water, had no visible bugs left behind in the water. In my second and third runs, besides the dirt I anticipated and the hairy projections attached to the strawberry skin located right next to the strawberry seeds, I did not observe any worms or other kinds of bugs (or spiders).

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I examined the berries pretty close before eating them. They didn’t taste salty, as the salt shouldn’t penetrate the fruit if the skin is intact.


Conclusion

I expected a certain degree of bugs and dirt to be present in fresh produce—after all, the berries are grown in soil and travel a bit before reaching our farmers markets and grocery stores.

In the first case, the spiders ran away from the plain water, while in the last two experimental runs, there was just dirt in the runoff water.

An additional experiment that I did not perform, that would look at the efficiency of this method: Intentionally add bugs to strawberries, then clean them with water versus salted water, and observe if there are any differences in the number of bugs that come off. (If you try this yourself, do report back in the comments below.)

Based on my results, it appears that water by itself is just as good at getting rid of bugs from fruit. At the end of the day, I’m going to stick to washing my strawberries (and other fruit) with tap water.

What hack would you want Nik to test next? Let us know in the comments!
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Nik Sharma is a molecular biologist turned cookbook author and food photographer who writes a monthly column for Serious Eats and the San Francisco Chronicle and is a contributor to the New York Times. His first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award and an International Association of Culinary Professionals award. Nik resides in Los Angeles, California and writes the award-winning blog, A Brown Table. Nik's new book, The Flavor Equation will be released in October 2020.

66 Comments

Donoteatducks October 19, 2020
I've always known to rinse produce but I'll probably try both methods. I've been scarred ever since I was a kid and thought I had a "nice strawberry", I didn't see any visible holes anywhere and a fresh color. I bit into the center and looked down to see half of a maggot wiggling in the berry, realizing that I had accidentally swallowed a half of a maggot and it was traumatic to see half of a maggot wiggling around in my snack. Any way to prevent that fear from recurring sounds like a great idea to me.
 
Donoteatducks October 19, 2020
I've always known to rinse produce but I'll probably try both methods. I've been scarred ever since I was a kid and thought I had a "nice strawberry", I didn't see any visible holes anywhere and a fresh color. I bit into the center and looked down to see half of a maggot wiggling in the berry, realizing that I had accidentally swallowed a half of a maggot and I've been scarred ever since. Any way to prevent that fear from recurring sounds like a great idea to me.
 
nancymae September 25, 2020
I have washed all my produce in a mild vinegar water solution. It always works for me. It does not impart a vinegar taste.


 
GigiR September 23, 2020
You could also try adding white vinegar to the water In which you are washing the berries. There are generally 2 strengths of ordinary white vinegar. The one for pickling is stronger. Rinse well afterward with plain fresh water.
 
Vicki M. August 30, 2020
I can tell you that when we pick wild morels we soak them in salt water to remove small invertebrates and you would not BELIEVE how much comes crawling out of them.
 
Linda August 30, 2020
Something else I won’t eat! Ugh.
 
[email protected] August 30, 2020
What about washing strawberries in vinegar water?
 
Karin July 23, 2020
I’m 65 and have been buying and storing berries for 50 years! The vinegar and water rinse is a game changer. I wish I had all the berries I wasted over the 50 years! Totally makes your berries last a week or more longer.
 
Jean K. July 23, 2020
I once cut into a strawberry trying to get a bruise out. A tiny green caterpillar/worm creature wiggled out. I screamed and almost dropped my knife. I have been slicing my strawberries ever since. I only buy organic fruit. So I expect to see some critters when I rinse them. It’s the price you pay to NOT EAT POISON. But I’ll try the salt water trick. Heck I’ll try the vinegar trick which I’ve never heard of before either.
 
Mar July 22, 2020
So lucky you have a garden with strawberries! For those of us who don’t
: (
I still say the bit of vinegar in water rinse is best, esp for nice ripe berries. Kills the mold, etc. and they last. Trim them whole you’re at it, and put on paper towels in a closed container in the fridge.
But do not store them unwashed in the original container in the fridge. I know people do it, but they just dry out!
 
Lynne July 22, 2020
Oh dear, we eat them right out of the garden ;9) sometimes without a rinse. I have survived thus far!
 
Frances F. July 22, 2020
Me too, but mine are really tiny and few between.
 
GigiR September 23, 2020
Please give those berries a rinse first. There are all manner of creatures in our garden, including little toads who actually enjoy the wild strawberries. An old dog pal “Dushky” was curious about one of theses roads, and licked it and ate some of the berries too. Very sick dog resulted. Please rinse 🙏.
 
[email protected] July 13, 2020
Thanks! Surprising result
 
rejack July 12, 2020
The salted water method has been practiced by the African-American cooks since long before I was born ( born in the 1950's). It's very effective for removing bugs and crawly things from tough items like collard, mustard greens, kale and spinach. You would be surprised as what floats to the top of a sink of salted water . eek!
 
bsoslander July 11, 2020
I wash strawberries very carefully, paying attention to the stem area, because of the insecticidesbsprayed on them. I've never had bugs in them.
 
June July 14, 2020
I read that strawberries are high on the 'buy organic' list because pesticide hides under the seeds. Once I left a bunch of strawberries in a sink of cool water for longer than planned. After I swished them around and put them in a colander, I noticed a lot of seeds in the bottom of the sink. I don't know if any additional pesticides were removed with the seeds, but I now routinely wash strawberries this way.
 
Susan S. July 11, 2020
I DO find salt water washing is effective for broccoli and cauliflower to evict bugs. I usually get one or two green worms off the ones from the garden, cuz we don't use any pesticides. Never felt the need to use salt water for berries.
 
Michael L. July 11, 2020
A bug in produce? The horror! The horror! Stick with the canned stuff.

As for berries, eating commercial berries depresses me. I haven't had a decent blueberry or raspberry since I was a child and picked wild ones out in the fields of New York and New England. Strawberries are also a huge disappointment (though we never ran across wild ones). I'm glad to hear that in Canada and the midwest decent berries are still available. But the idea of breeding for size and color as opposed to flavor and aroma simply astounds me. We now "enjoy" beautiful, large, utterly tasteless fruit. The Red Delicious apple was ruined by selecting for color. And if you've ever smelled a bed of small and eccentrically shaped wild roses, you'll understand what Shakespeare was on about. Another simple joy ruined by breeding for size and color.
 
Smaug July 11, 2020
Roses are still bred for scent- I don't think that Shakespeare would be too disappointed with the various Damascena hybrids that came along later, the hybrid musks, or some of the more modern efforts, particularly among the English roses, such as Gertrude Jekyll or the various myrrh scented roses (Glamys Castle, Fair Bianca etc).
 
June July 14, 2020
Michael L. I couldn't agree more...bad and getting worse. My latest frustration is greenhouse-grown vegetables. They don't taste the same.
 
Cindy W. September 6, 2020
So true! I live in Deep East Texas and there is nothing better than wild blackberries! I pick them each year with my grand babies and we make a berry cobbler and BlackBerry jelly. I am just trying to keep my great Grandmother's strawberry, BlackBerry, Mayhaw and Muskidine jellies, jams and perserves going! 😊🤑🤑🤑 yummmyyy. Everyone stay safe and have a Blessed Day!
 
Cindy W. September 6, 2020
I know Juliet would have loved the old fashion English tea roses (that I picked as a child) if Romeo had of given her one! Awesome smelling 🌹🌹🌹🌹 people need to stop and smell the flowers and give thanks to the Good Lord for allowing us to remain on his beautiful EARTH! Wishing everyone a BLESSED DAY and stay safe ☺☺😊😊
 
Berryguy July 11, 2020
Good morning Nik. I am the president of the Wisconsin Berry Growers Ass. Strawberries are porous but not to the point where even small spiders and other insects could actually get into the berry. We experience the biggest problems like insects in fruit with Raspberries. The biggest problem with raspberries is that they are very porous with many cavities the insects can live and lay eggs in. Spotted Wing Drosophila(SWD) is a fly that will lay its eggs in the raspberry. As the eggs hatch and form larva, they feed on the soft raspberry flesh. SWD has been devastating to the raspberry industry all through the midwest. This is the berry that I think you are referring to, and should be washed thoroughly before consuming. Thanks Nik.
 
AlwaysLookin July 11, 2020
If you used REAL Strawberries and not the Genetically engineered Strawberries from California and Florida you might have different results ... here in the Midwest the size is sometimes a third as big as the tasteless Big ones ... you don't know what you're missing.
 
ustabahippie July 11, 2020
Luckily here in CA, if we do desire, we can get small organic non gmo strawberries at farmers’ markets.
 
ustabahippie July 11, 2020
I can easily find organic non gmo strawberries here in CA.
 
FS July 11, 2020
A great strawberry is hard to find, even the organic ones aren't as sweet and deeply flavored as the ones I picked as a kid. I'm just 56 yrs old, so my youth isn't that long ago. Mom used to take us kids to pick yourself strawberry farms where we ate until we were sick. No charge for the eaten berries, and the picked berries were dead cheap. The fruit were so fragrant you could smell the field from a long way off.
 
Judy K. August 22, 2020
There are no genetically modified strawberries on the market – not just in the U.S., but in the world. They are crossbred for certain traits and I agree bigger is not better tasting, but don't say gmo.
 
Jason July 11, 2020
Unfortunately unless you are buying Organic...your fruit and veggies are COVERED with and infused with pesticides and chemicals and poisons.....no right minded bug would live there!
 
Brian D. July 10, 2020
I am going to horrify all by sharing that I never wash "soft" berries (strawberries, raspberries). I buy them organic at the farmers market, or a very high quality grocer. In the 80s I was told by a chef to never wash a strawberry as the flavors are so based on volatile and fragile scent. I do wash blueberries. All other fruit, I use a fruit wash and soak in a large bread-making bowl.
 
ustabahippie July 11, 2020
My raspberries hardly ever make it all the way home. Empty baskets on arrival.
 
Toni Z. July 10, 2020
I don't care what you test or search.
I do want to be able to print the whole article so I can keep it in my cooking/recipes albums!
Otherwise, I love all of it.