Here’s the deal: You bring home fresh fruits and vegetables, stash them in the fridge and then wonder what happened to make them shrivel, rot or go limp just a few days later. Most of the time, the problem is how you’re storing them. Here are a few tips to keep your produce fresher longer.
First, a story:
Once upon a time, I worked aboard research ships, first as a crew member and years later, after amassing enough sea time and passing a week’s worth of exams, as a merchant marine officer. (I was shorter than the average officer, so to look into the radar, a milk crate was delivered to the wheelhouse).
Our trips often lasted for three or four weeks and took us to faraway places, such as south of the equator where we deployed camera “sleds” to gently bounce along the bottom of the ocean, taking pictures of amazing creatures that lived 3 miles below the surface. Or north to the Chukchi Sea so divers could observe gray whales digging long trenches in the amphipod-rich sediment. Gray whales, by the way, were spooked by the divers’ air bubbles.
Faraway places had their challenges, especially for the galley staff planning meals for a crew of 50 to 100. I remember sitting down to a meal of steak, stuffed green peppers, mashed potatoes and a tossed green salad. Even though we’d departed Honolulu three weeks before, the salad greens were crunchy and vibrant green.
How was this possible?
“What’s your secret?” I asked the chief steward, Jimmy Escobar, one afternoon during a coffee break.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” he said.
And off we went, down metal stairs and through watertight doors until we stood in front of a giant door with an oversized latch that looked more like a beer tap handle. He opened the door and we stepped over the sill into an enormous, refrigerated room.
“Welcome to the refers,” Jimmy smiled.
Winding through crates of apples, celery, mangoes and melons, we stopped at a set of crates filled with what looked like brown grocery bags. I peeked inside a bag.
“Romaine lettuce?” I asked in surprise. “How does that work?”
“Each head of lettuce is stored in a separate bag. Otherwise it turns moldy fast,” Jimmy said.
He went on to explain that there were two things that make greens spoil quickly: moisture and air.
“Oh sure, it wilts a little toward the end of the trip,” he said, “but we rinse the greens with ice cold water to freshen ’em up good.”
Fast forward a few decades. Last week I was getting ready for my massage appointment, going through a to-do list: mask, check. Cash, check. Greens from the garden … check. Shall I wash them? Nope. I knew they would last longer if I simply picked the lettuce, kale and mustard greens and wrapped them inside a slightly damp paper towel ...
You see, moisture and air work with bacteria to break down the cell walls and create the “slime” that coats greens after a few days in the fridge.
We’ve all experienced this: You purchase gourmet greens at the store and bring them home. And though you carefully stashed them in the crisper drawer, within a day or two they’ve turned into a science experiment. “Refrigeratus neglectus,” my brother used to say when things went bad in the fridge.
Use these tips to get your greens lasting up to five days longer:
If you buy greens:
In a bag:
— Add a paper towel (or kitchen towel) to absorb moisture. The towel acts like a little diaper so there’s no puddle of water.
— Shake the bag gently to evenly spread out the leaves and store it laying down (not upright with all the leaves smashed together at the bottom).
In a plastic clamshell container:
— Add a paper towel at the bottom to absorb moisture.
— Fluff up the leaves so they practice social distancing (touch each other less).
From the garden or a farmer’s market:
— Lay them out in a single layer on a long sheet of paper towels.
— Roll it up, burrito style, but loosely. Store in a plastic bag or clear container in the fridge.
Say bye-bye to slimy greens!
Veggies and fruits don’t play well together. So don’t store them together in a refrigerator drawer or next to each other in the pantry. Why’s that? Many fruits, especially apples, produce ethylene gas, which acts like a ripening hormone and can speed spoilage.
Wash produce before you use it, not before you store it: Washing vegetables or fruits before storing them makes them more likely to spoil. So when it’s time to make a salad, plunge the greens in cold water and pat or spin them dry. Speaking of salad spinners, you can also store greens in a salad spinner, but it takes up a lot of space in the fridge.
Vegetables need to breathe. Keep them in re-useable mesh bags or poke holes in the plastic bags you store them in (not my favorite method as now you have a single-use plastic bag). An airtight plastic bag or container is the worst choice for storing vegetables. And remember, don’t pack veggies tightly together, either; they need space for air circulation or they’ll spoil faster.
Keep it whole: Do not trim or cut produce before storing. You might as well ring the dinner bell for bacteria. Soon the exposed surfaces turn brown and slimy
Green bags for greens: Perforated plastic bags, like those green refrigerator bags, also work well. Just remember to check on the greens more often (or simply EAT them) as they tend to dry out more quickly.
Out of sight, out of mind: Keep greens at eye level in your fridge, not in the RIP (Rest in Peace) drawer. In sight. In mouth :)
What’s new, and cool, in storage: Rubbermaid has come out with a line of Produce Saver Food Storage Containers. Three things I love about these containers:
1. Vents in the lid regulate air flow, which help circulate air.
2. A tray in the bottom “lifts” produce up and away from any accumulated moisture.
3. They’re BPA free!
They’re available both in sets of four (one 14-cup, one 5-cup and two 2-cup containers) and individually. The last time I checked (and things can change by the minute), it was cheaper to get the set of four than just one 14-cup container.
The rest of the story:
You might be wondering why I didn’t mention brown paper bags in my list of tips for storing greens. That’s because my ah-ha moment in the bowels of the ship with Chief Steward Jimmy Escobar took place in the 1970s, way before the proliferation of plastic storage bags and containers. Brown paper bags still have a food-storage purpose: They’re perfect for storing mushrooms, potatoes, strawberries, onions and garlic.
Oh, one more thing that I learned from a family that travels the globe on a sailboat: To keep celery crisp, refrigerate it wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, not plastic wrap. Why? When wrapped in foil, the ethylene gas the celery produces can escape. Re-wrap tightly after each use. By the way, celery sticks and carrots sticks DO play well together: Submerged in water in a tightly covered container, that is.
— Garlic growers: Bulbs showing defined cloves (rather than a round ball) indicate it’s time to harvest. Timing varies between varieties.
— Thin carrots!
— Greenhouse/hoophouse growers: Prevent mold by increasing air movement. Avoid closing doors and windows, even on cloudy/rainy days.
— Research how to make salves, creams, tinctures.
— Lawn mowing people: Adjust your mower’s blade to the highest setting.
— Provide additional support for dill, delphiniums, calendula and other tall plants.
— Give away bouquets of your flowers.