Cool It with the Refrigerator
Once you get your vegetables home, how you store them has a huge effect on their longevity. Grocery stores minimize food loss by keeping their items perfectly preserved until purchase, and some of their techniques can be replicated at home. As long as you don’t live in a hot or arid climate, most produce should be stored at room temperature, not in the refrigerator. Storing food in the refrigerator stops the ripening process, and can damage its flavor and texture. Keep the majority of produce out on the kitchen counter, away from light and heat, and never store food in a sealed bag–make sure that plastic bags are perforated, or better yet, keep produce in ventilated bowls or in brown paper bags. Sealing food in bags can cause food to rot because of the carbon dioxide buildup in the bag.
In addition, fruit produces ethylene gas, which speeds ripening, so separate fruits from vegetables to prevent the fruit from causing a chemical reaction that makes the veggies rot more quickly. Apples are the main producers of ethylene (with the exception of Granny Smith and Fuji varieties), but all fruit produces the gas in some quantity. Tomatoes, mushrooms, and potatoes should always remain on the counter in a bowl or brown paper bag, and onions and garlic should be stored in the open, to allow ventilation and prevent rotting.
Fruit can start out on the counter, but once ripe, moving it into the refrigerator will keep it at its peak for a few more days. Avocadoes, peaches, plums, pluots, and pears can ripen on their own before being refrigerated. Some experts recommend refrigerating apples right away, to keep them from becoming mealy or ripening too fast.
Some vegetables can tolerate the refrigerator right from the start, as long as the temperature is between 32 and 36F. The “crisper” drawer is intended to be the most humid place of the refrigerator, which vegetables love. If your crisper allows for humidity control, make sure it’s set for about 95 percent, and keep carrots, celery, herbs like basil or dill, and lettuce in the drawer. Cut the green stems off carrots or other root vegetables right away, because they can leach moisture. Lettuce is one of the few foods that can be washed before storage. Rinse it in cold water and store tightly wrapped in a plastic bag.
For most other perishable foods, don’t wash until right before you use them, because extra moisture on fruits and vegetables can cause them to rot more quickly. If your crisper has no humidity control or doesn’t provide enough moisture, feel free to take out the drawers and use the extra space for other products, and when you need to store vegetables, just keep them on one of the top shelves, which are usually a bit warmer and moister than the rest of the refrigerator. Wilted or wrinkly vegetables are usually a sign of deficient humidity, and discoloration and browning are usually a sign of chill damage, so adjust your refrigerator accordingly.
In a perfect world, we’d all have the money and time to browse through the market, leisurely planning the day’s meal. In reality, most of us have to stock up for the week, risking that some items won’t survive to be enjoyed. Better planning and better storage can maximize the amount of fresh foods that we eat, while minimizing the amount of food (and money) we toss away.