We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Storing fruits and veggies can be daunting. Who hasn’t arrived home from the grocery store loaded down with produce—and the best intentions—only to later find themselves removing stinky, putrefied spinach from the crisper drawer? What a (disgusting) waste!
Well, we can’t force you to cook more often or keep you from forgetting that cauliflower you purchased before it starts to get spotty, but we can offer some tips for storing produce as effectively as possible.
To refrigerate, or not to refrigerate?
Ah, the eternal question. We’ve written previously about foods you should stop refrigerating, but now let’s focus specifically on produce.
Keep potatoes out of that ice box, as well as onions, garlic, and winter squash. The dampness of the refrigerator could cause onions and garlic to sprout prematurely, while potatoes and winter squash tend to react to refrigeration by developing dark spots.
Tomatoes do best on the countertop; in the fridge, cold saps them of flavor and moisture, giving them a mealy texture. Bananas should ripen on the countertop, and while you can refrigerate them, be aware that the cold will turn their peels an unsavory shade of dark brown.
That said, many other fruits should sit on the counter until ripe, and then shift to the fridge to slow down the ripening process. Stone fruits like peaches and plums (but not cherries!) ripen well at room temp, as do avocados, mangos, melons, apples, pears, kiwis, and citrus.
What fruits and veggies should go in the fridge? Pretty much everything else.
Separate incompatible produce.
It seems a bit silly, but some fruits and veggies just don’t play nice with one another, and storing them in the same drawer can lead to a loss of freshness or flavor. There are actually two distinct factors at play here, but let’s start by talking about chemistry.
Some fruits emit high levels of ethylene gas, which acts as a ripening agent. This can be problematic if these fruits are sitting next to fruits that are particularly sensitive to ethylene. You may have heard that you should avoid storing fruits and veggies in the same crisper drawer, and the reason for that is that ethylene emitters are mostly fruits, while most ethylene-sensitive produce comes in vegetable form.
Here's how it breaks down: Produce that emits high levels of ethylene gas include ripe bananas, apples, stone fruit (except for cherries), cantaloupe, honeydew melons, mangoes, pears, ripe kiwis, tomatoes, onions, and leeks.
Make sure to store those gas-producers away from ethylene-sensitive produce, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, leafy greens, peas, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, strawberries, and watermelon.
Another factor to keep in mind is the fact that some produce can emit or absorb unsavory odors. For example, many fruits and veggies can absorb the odors of onions and garlic, so you may want to keep them at a distance. Apples are particularly susceptible. Cabbage, carrots, and celery may also absorb the odors of apples and pears, so store them apart if you find that unappetizing.
Put those crisper drawers to work.
So you know which fruits and veggies you want to refrigerate, and you know which ones you want to store together. But how do you use your crisper drawers most effectively?
Since we've already separated our produce according to ethylene gas emission, it makes sense to extend that division to the crisper drawers. If your drawers aren’t humidity-adjustable, then there’s not much to do but place your produce in separate drawers and go about your day. But if you have full control, take full advantage.
Produce that gives off a lot of ethylene gas should go in a drawer with a low humidity setting. This opens a window that allows air to flow in and out, meaning that the ethylene gas can escape the drawer instead of getting trapped there and prematurely ripening your fruit.
Produce that’s particularly sensitive to ethylene gas should get a high humidity setting, which traps air inside the drawer. This reduces moisture loss (which should keep your greens from wilting right away, for example) and prevents ethylene gas from entering the drawer and facilitating rotting.
It’s worth noting that cramming your crisper full of produce will also facilitate rotting, so place items loosely inside the drawer instead of packing them tightly to the top. Drawers are generally most effective when about two thirds full.
When it’s all said and done, there’s no substitute for taking some basic steps to avoid rotten, wilted, or moldy fruits and veggies. Washing items before storage can clean away protective coatings that inhibit things like mold growth, and too much moisture sitting on the surface can also lead to premature rotting.
Also, some types of produce simply tend to go bad before others, and you’re going to have to plan accordingly. An orange can sit in the fridge for months without harm, but kale will wilt and then turn within a week.
Lastly, try not to forget about an item until it’s liquified in some putrid corner of your refrigerator. Trust us, cleaning it up will not be the highlight of your day.