When the Time is Ripe: Produce Storage Guide
Have you ever wondered why we keep some produce in bags in the refrigerator? Why we let some produce hang loose on the counter, or why we store some things in water? Do you do none of these things and find yourself tossing lots of rotting food in the compost? Wherever you are on the produce-storage journey, this article will help you figure out the best way to store your harvest – and why that is.
We will get down to the specifics of what to store where, and for how long, but first, science. Let’s look at the process behind ripening. We can think of ripening as a survival tactic that many fruit species evolved - one that we animals are a part of. Many fruits develop as hard, dry and bitter in order to deter animals from eating them before the seed is fully mature and able to germinate. Once the seed matures, however, the fruit becomes juicier, softer and sweeter to attract animals and release their seed into the wild. Though this ripening process is not entirely understood, we do know that a plant hormone called ethylene plays a part in the transformation. Ethylene speeds up ripening in the fruit producing the hormone, and it can also be released as a gas that speeds up the ripening process of other fruits and vegetables. We can also provoke a fruit to release ethylene by subjecting the fruit to warmer temperatures or by “injuring” it – aka slicing or opening it.
One Bad Apple…
Some fruits are strong ethylene producers, and some fruits and vegetables are highly susceptible to ethylene gas – meaning they will ripen or rot quickly when exposed to ethylene gas. Apples, for example, are both high emitters of ethylene and highly sensitive to it (nerd alert: this is where the expression “Bad Apple” comes from: one rotting apple will release a high quantity of ethylene gas, potentially spoiling the whole bunch). To keep things simple, when it comes to ethylene, it’s best to keep fruits and vegetables separate when trying to prevent over-ripening, to keep cut fruits and veggies in their own, closed containers, and to keep bananas away from everything else.
To the Fridge or the Counter?
Another simple rule to remember is that the refrigerator while delaying the spoiling, will also dry out your produce and cause it to lose flavor. Whenever possible, it’s best to store your produce in cool, dry, places, and to eat it within a couple of days of purchasing. But since we all have lives and going shopping every other day may be impossible, using the crisper drawers in the refrigerator is the next best option to help retain some of the moisture.
Now for the main event, here is a list of common produce, where to store it and for how long:
Apples, Citrus: for unripe apples and citrus fruits, store on the countertop, or in a paper bag to speed up ripening. Otherwise, they will last at least a week in the fridge.
Avocado: for hard, unripe avocados, store them in a paper bag, preferably with a ripe apple to speed up the ripening process. Store ripe or cut avocados in the fridge, with the pit still attached – this will help it stay ripe longer.
Broccoli, Bell Peppers, Cucumbers, Fennel, Scallions, Cauliflower, Celery, Brussels sprouts, Summer Squash: store in the crisper drawer, unbagged – but eat quickly! Preferably within a few days.
Cabbage: about two weeks in the crisper drawer.
Cherries and berries: should be eaten as soon as possible, or stored in the refrigerator. These fruits don’t emit much ethylene, so they’re ok to store near other fruit. Wash and stem them just before you eat them.
Corn: if not eaten right away, store in refrigerator with husks intact. Best eaten after 2 days.
Ginger: store in the freezer. It will last for months and becomes super easy to grate into your dishes!
Green Beans: remove the stem and store in the crisper drawer for up to three days.
Eggplant: will keep for about a week on the countertop, but prefer slightly cooler temperatures so store out of direct light.
Leafy Greens: cut the stems, remove any rubber band or tie, wash and pat dry. store in the refrigerator in a slightly damp towel in an open container.
Leeks, Celery, Asparagus, Herbs: store on the countertop with the stems down submerged in water. Cut stems and change the water often.
Melons (Watermelons, Cantaloupe, and Honeydew Melons): store on a cool, dry countertop, best to eat within a few days.
Mushrooms: keep in a paper bag, will keep for about a week in the crisper drawer.
Onions, Shallots, and Garlic: store in a cool, dry spot on your countertop.
Potatoes and Squash: store on a cool, dark countertop and they will last for weeks. Keep potatoes away from onions, garlic, and leeks. Onions release gases that cause potatoes to sprout earlier. Potatoes are safe to consume after they sprout – just remove the sprouts! Note: Potatoes are NOT safe to eat if they turn green, which can happen if they are exposed to sun or higher temperatures.
Root Vegetables such as Carrots, Beets, Radishes, Parsnips, and Turnips: remove the greens. Will last for weeks in the refrigerator.
Stone Fruits and Pears: if ripe, these should be eaten right away. Store on the countertop until ripe and then move to the fridge for storage up to several days.
Tomatoes: store at room temperature, tomatoes will last for up to a week. The refrigerator will turn them mealy and flavorless – yuck!