How To Make Produce Last Longer

Keep the beet alive a little longer with this guide to preservation

produce preserve last tomatos

    Photo: Courtesy of Whitney Dreier

“We end up wasting a lot of food not only because we don’t know how to store it correctly, but also because we don’t plan very well,” says Mark Mulcahy, produce expert and co-host of An Organic Conversation radio show. “We all get excited at the farmers’ market, especially in the summer – the peaches call your name, the honeydews smell so good, you put the blackberries in your cart – but when you’re getting excited about produce, take a second to think: Will I use this this week? Plan for your impulse.”

Once you have narrowed down your shopping list, buy produce soon after its been harvested – that’s when it’s freshest. Frequent your local farmers’ market, where fruits and veggies will have been picked only a day or so earlier. If your town doesn’t have a market, ask the produce manager at your local grocery store or food co-op what days the department receives deliveries, and plan your shopping trips accordingly. If possible, make multiple purchases throughout the week to ensure you’re getting the best of what’s available.

At home, keeping produce fresh is “all about management,” according to Mulcahy. “All fruit produces ethylene gas, which helps it to ripen faster – if you leave it all in the fruit bowl, it’s all going to ripen.” So, if your peaches, starts to ripen, for example, take them out and put them in the fridge. If you notice any rotten or moldy produce, compost it immediately. One bad apple really will spoil the whole bunch.

Keep produce whole as long as possible. Don’t remove stems or even wash it until you’re ready to eat it. If you do want to store sliced fruit or veggies, keep them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator, which limits moisture loss and exposure to bacteria.

Keep cold-sensitive fruits (such as apricots, avocados, bananas, kiwis, mangos and melons) on the counter. For everything else, get familiar with your fridge, which has different temperature zones. Keep produce such as berries, citrus, corn, melon and peas in the front, where it’s warmer. Fruits such as apples, cherries and grapes can be stored anywhere because they are less susceptible to chill damage. Keep all refrigerated fruit away from leafy vegetables, which should live in the crisper drawer, along with artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, and carrots.

Apples, during the summer, should be stored in the fridge. During the fall, they can be stored on the counter because they’re fresh picked.

Store asparagus standing in the fridge; keep the tips dry but soak the ends in a container of water.

Don’t store avocados in the refrigerator unless they are cut, otherwise the cold will turn them black inside.

Bananas are the biggest ethylene gas culprits, according to Mulcahy. “It’s best to store them away from other non-refrigerated items so they don’t cause other produce to spoil.”

Basil doesn’t like cold, and it doesn’t like to be wet. Mulcahy recommends purchasing basil in a clamshell container and keeping it on the counter.  

Sometimes blueberries will be coated in a white film. “It’s a natural protectant, you want to see that,” Mulcahy says. “Put them in a moisture-proof container or that clam shell they come in, and they’ll store for up to five days.”

Allow cantaloupes—and most melons—to ripen on your counter at room temperature for two to four days. “Once they start to smell, there will be a little bit of softness at the non-stem end,” Mulcahy says. “When there’s a little bit of give there, then they’re ready to eat.” But if you’re not ready to eat, store them in fridge, where they’ll keep for about 10 days.

Carrots should be bright orange and without cracks. “Take the greens off before you put them in the fridge,” Mulcahy says. “Then put them in a plastic bag in your crisper drawer, and they’ll stay for about two weeks.”

Corn should go in the fridge—in a plastic bag, in the crisper drawer—immediately after you buy it.

Greens also belong in plastic bags in the crisper, but don’t despair if they start to get droopy and dehydrated. “They can be saved,” says Ro D’Attilio, Produce Department Team Leader at La Montanita Co-op in Albuquerque. “It’s similar to the way cut flowers work.” Cut off the stem or the butt and soak the produce in luke-warm water. Placing the entire green under water is most effective, but placing the green in a glass of water (like a flower) will also do. Let it soak for at least 20 minutes. Take it out, shake the water off of it and put in back in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes. “Waa laah!” D’Attilio says. “It’s as good as new. This technique also works for broccoli, cauliflower, and occasionally root vegetables – pretty much anything that has a lot of water content.

Green beans should be a vibrant color and have a smooth feel on your fingers – “almost velvety,” according to Mulcahy. “You want to make sure that they’re firm enough that they snap – that’s freshness. Store them unwashed in the refrigerator in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.”

Peaches and nectarines should be bought firm and stored at room temperature – do not put them in your fridge. As they start to ripen, place them in the fridge, where they’ll keep for three more days.

Keep tomatoes stem-down on the counter. They ripen at the other end,” Mulcahy says. “If it’s sitting on there, it will go soft quicker.” Do not store tomatoes in the refrigerator.

Onions should go in a paper or mesh bag. “They love a little bit of air on them,” Mulcahy says. “They like to be cool and dry in a cupboard or a hanging basket.” Do not store onions next to potatoes – they’ll make each other go bad faster (potatoes, however, should also be stored in a cool, dry, dark place).

And lastly, keep in mind that most fruit is going to have optimum flavor if eaten at room temperature. “If you put a cantaloupe in the fridge, you want put it on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes to let it warm up before you cut into it and eat it,” Mulcahy advises – definitely something to keep in mind before you serve that fruit salad at your next barbeque.

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