Making Your Fruits and Veggies Last
In times of pantry cooking and beyond
In this unprecedented time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we’re all eating a little bit differently. It can be tough to get to the grocery store and favorite items might be sold out. Our usual restaurant stops, home deliveries, and takeout options may not be available. While we’re cooking more with less, it’s more important than ever to make your fresh fruits and vegetables last. Luckily, the kitchen ideas I’ve learned over the past few years for fighting food waste are easily transferable to cooking in a time of quarantine. When you’re aiming to make your food go far, during a pandemic or just real life, it’s good to know how to make your fresh produce last as long as possible.
A good principle is to store your produce in the same areas as they do in the supermarket. It’s their literal business to keep food fresh as long as possible! While you obviously won’t be using the exact same methods – they’re aiming for display as well as storage – you can think of your produce in the same fundamental categories:
- Room Temperature Storage: these are the items you’d find displayed out of refrigeration in the produce section and can be divided into:
- Pantry storage (cooler and away from the light) for sturdy and long-lasting vegetables
- Counter storage for fruits that need to ripen
- Refrigeration: These are the fresh fruits and vegetables in the refrigerated cases of the produce department and typically fall into three categories:
- Loose: most fruit, like citrus and melons can just be placed into your fridge drawers
- Airtight storage: most delicate greens
- Breathable storage: berries and most other vegetables, from roots to stalks to hearty greens
- Special storage: a few items, like asparagus, mushrooms, corn and fresh herbs require a bit more attention.
Let’s dive a bit more deeply into each one:
Room Temperature Storage:
Pantry Storage: some vegetables need a cool, dark place for optimum storage. In the old days that would have been a root cellar, but let’s be honest – who has a root cellar these days? For most people this means a cupboard or a drawer away from the light where you’ll store the following items:
- Tubers such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, winter squash, and even eggplant, which browns in the fridge.
- Onions, shallots, and similar alliums should also be stored somewhere cool and dark, but not with potatoes. If stored together, they’ll cause the potatoes to sprout. While we’re on the topic – green and sprouted potatoes can be eaten if peeled deeply to remove all green and sprouty bits, but if you’re immunocompromised in any way, just compost them.
Counter Storage: your counter is the best place for most fruits (except apples, citrus and berries) to sit until ripe – that’s why fruit bowls exist! Once ripe, these fruits should be moved to the refrigerator to preserve them as long as possible. Melons, stone fruit (i.e. peaches, nectarines, cherries, etc), and bananas fit into this category, as do avocados. Tomatoes should ideally always be kept at room temperature, but can be moved to the fridge once cut, or if in desperation to keep them a bit longer. If your tomatoes get wrinkly, roast them up!
Produce in the fridge fits into three categories: loose, airtight or breathable. You’ll see a lot of storage guides recommend plastic bags for airtight or breathable storage, but there are other options if you’re trying to minimize your use of plastic. You can invest in reusable storage bags or save the plastic ones that come into your house as bread storage or cereal bags. Try repurposing old storage boxes or tupperware for fridge storage. A lot of items will do well in their original plastic container, such as berries and grapes, which can then be recycled.
Fruits in the fridge:
- Apples, citrus and berries don’t need time to ripen, and so should be refrigerated right away if you’re aiming for lengthy storage. Take them out or let them sit at room temperature if you know you’re going to eat them soon.
- Berries do well staying in their original box or another breathable container. Once you get them home, remove any moldy ones, then don’t wash them until you’re ready to eat.
- Citrus can last a long time in the fridge, loose in your crisper drawer.
- Any other fruit that has been stored on the counter to ripen can be moved to the fridge to hold, or should be stored in the fridge in an airtight container once cut
Vegetables in the fridge: Most vegetables do best in the fridge when uncut, unwashed, and wrapped in a breathable container. This could be a plastic bag with holes in it or a reusable bag left open. The goal is to limit oxygen exposure, but allow a bit of airflow to minimize the moisture and condensation that causes rotting. This method works well for roots such as carrots and parsnips, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, fruits that are actually vegetables such as summer squash and cucumbers, as well as fresh beans, green onions and more. If your roots have greens on them like beets or turnips, cut the greens off and store them separately as they’ll draw moisture from the root. Don’t throw them out though – they’re delicious cooked like chard or another sturdy leafy green.
Greens, especially delicate salad leaves, are more susceptible to moisture and wilting. You’ll want to limit their supply of oxygen by storing in the airtight original container or rolled up in a plastic or reusable bag. Either way, it helps to stick a paper towel or dish towel in with the greens to soak up any moisture that would cause sliminess.
There are a few fruits and vegetables out there that need some additional TLC to last as long as possible. Asparagus and most leafy fresh herbs are best stored like cut flowers. Place them in a tall upright container in an inch or two of fresh water and refrigerate. The one exception is basil, which should be kept at room temperature or it’ll brown. Corn should be kept in the husk if possible; if not, wrap in damp towels to keep them moist, then wrap in a bag.
While we’re on special storage – the most highly controversial of vegetable storage topics is… mushrooms! Some people swear by paper bags or damp cloths to retain some moisture; others claim that any moisture will speed up the rotting process and breathable plastic bags should be used instead. Just for you guys, I did an at-home experiment comparing a breathable cloth bag to an open silicone bag to a paper bag. After 5 days, the mushrooms were all still good, if the tiniest bit slimy, but the least slimy ones were the ones stored in the paper bag. However, the original packaging often works well too.
Freezing Fruits and Veggies:
If you’re really aiming for long-term storage, most fruits and vegetables can be frozen. Fruits will lose texture (i.e. you wouldn’t want to eat them raw once defrosted) so they’re perfect for cooked desserts or smoothies. Vegetables can be frozen raw or cooked, depending on the vegetable, but you’ll also want to use them in cooked dishes.
Fruits: cut your fruit into pieces, lay on a tray, then transfer to a resealable bag. Defrost, then use for pie or tarts, or leave frozen for smoothies. Frozen peeled bananas make a delicious ice cream substitute when blended!
Vegetables: hearty greens and other tender vegetables like asparagus and broccoli are best blanched before freezing – chop, boil in salted water for a few minutes, then drain and let cool and freeze in bags. Tomatoes and onions can be frozen when raw or cooked (chop them first), then used in cooked dishes once defrosted. Sturdier vegetables like winter squash and sweet potatoes do best when cooked and pureed, then frozen. Herbs freeze best with a bit of oil in an ice cube tray, then you can toss the cubes into stews, soups, and more. The main vegetables that don’t freeze well are potatoes and lettuce. If you must freeze potatoes, make them into mashed potatoes first. And if your lettuce is getting old you can cook it (stir-fry or soup!) or perk it up in an ice water bath.