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How to Keep Fruits & Vegetables Fresh As Long As Possible

Last year, my lovely wife and I joined an organic CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. Each week, we’d get a bounty of vegetables and fruit that we had trouble finishing. We mistakenly got a full share, thinking we could handle it, but a full share is meant for a family of four. We only had a family of two… and we weren’t vegetarian either! Each week we’d struggle to eat all these vegetables, many of which were new to us.

We didn’t rejoin the CSA this year, not even a half share, because we were a little burned out last year. On the plus side, we ate a ton of vegetables and we learned how best to store our haul to make it last as long as possible. A lot of this information is taken from a variety of sources, some of which we’ve long forgotten, and it’s amazing how much misinformation is out there. Ultimately, the key is to eat things as quickly as possible but through smart storage practices, you can make things last a little bit longer.

We actually joined a CSA with friends and have a half share!

The list below is first grouped by where you should store them, followed by a huge list alphabetized by the fruit or vegetable (that you can download).

Understanding Ethylene

Before we start, a quick chemistry lesson. Ethylene is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced by some fruits and it helps them ripen (or age). Some produce a lot more of the chemical, like apples and pears, than others so a lot of tips revolve around segregating these producers. As an aside, ethylene is what commercial growers use to ripen some fruits after harvest.

You probably know this trick to help ripen bananas faster – put bananas in a paper bag. That’s because the bag traps the ethylene and that helps ripen the fruit. You can expand this strategy by taking fruits that produce more ethylene, like apples, and putting them in with those that don’t produce as much, like tomatoes and bananas. The apples help the tomatoes and bananas ripen. Also, that saying “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” is in part caused by ethylene. When a plant or fruit is damaged, it releases more ethylene which, in turn, ripens the other fruits faster! (the damaged area also attracts bugs, which then discover the feast).

Which fruits produce the most ethylene? Apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe, figs, honeydew, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, and tomatoes comprise the short list of produce that are a significant source of ethylene. You will want to keep these fruits away from other fruits and vegetables, and certainly not store them in the same enclosed space, unless you want them to ripen faster.

Where to Store Fruits & Vegetables

There are basically three places you should store your fruits and vegetables – in the refrigerator, on the countertop, or in a cool dry place (not as cold as the fridge, but certainly not someplace “warm”). When in the fridge, there are three ways to store something – exposed, in a plastic bag, or in a paper bag. In general, the stuff that you put inside bags will want a more humid environment while the exposed ones do better in dryer climates. Ever notice water condensation inside a plastic bag? You can avoid that by putting a few holes in it. That water isn’t good for the produce, it promotes mold.

If all else fails, I generally try to store the fruit or vegetable the same way the grocery store does it. Asparagus is stored in a tray of water. Bananas hang out on the counter. It’s not a perfect system but if you aren’t sure how to store them, it doesn’t hurt to copy the grocery store.

Store in Refrigerator

In general, you do not want to wash fruits and vegetables until right before you use them. If you do wash them, make sure to dry them before storing. Water promotes mold and mold is bad. There’s a subset on this list that you absolutely cannot wash, like berries, simply because you can’t get it dry enough!

Here are the items you will want to store in a fridge:

Store After Ripening

Almost every one of these produce a lot of ethylene, so wait until they ripen before putting in the fridge:

Store in Water

Herbs and asparagus are best stored as you would flowers – snip off the ends and stand them upright in some water. If you’ve ever watched asparagus in the fridge, the cold dry air sucks the moisture out of each stem. The stem will shrivel, wrinkle, and if you try to cook and eat it, it’s like eating a stem. If you want to keep it fresh, store them as you would display flowers – trim the end and stand it up in a shallow cup of water.

Store in Paper Bag

Mushrooms and okra are best stored inside a paper bag, because a paper bag prevents light.

Do Not Wash, Store in Plastic Bag

Definitely don’t wash these until right before you use them. When you store them, keep them in the plastic bag:

Do Not Wash, Store in Single Layer

Don’t wash these before you put them in a fridge and, if you can, store in a single layer. If you wash them, the skins will get soggy and it’ll accelerate spoilage. The argument for storing them in a single layer is because when they do start to go bad, the juice that leaks out can accelerate the decline of other berries. Storing in a single layer reduces the amount of damage while permitted air flow.

Store on the Countertop

When storing on the counter top, try to keep it at room temperature. Avoid sunlight and cooking surfaces, which can increase the ambient temperature. If you want it to ripen, then you can leave it in the sun. If you can, move them around every so often so they aren’t resting on the same point. This is especially important for tomatoes.

Store in Cool, Dry Dark Place

Many root vegetables are best stored in a cool dry dark place, which is why root cellars [3] were so popular back in the days of yore. One thing to keep in mind is that air circulation is important because of ethylene buildup. You may have heard the advice that you shouldn’t store onions and potatoes, that’s because of ethylene.

Alphabetized Master List

Organizing the list by “where,” as opposed to by “what” might not be the best approach if you have a fruit or vegetable and just want to know where you should put it. Here’s a list alphabetized by the fruit/veg (download as a PDF here [4]):

Did I miss one of your favorite fruits or vegetables?

(Photo: callipe [5], maggiejane [6], laurapadgett [7], ccharmon [8], itsgreg [9], pauljill [10])