The amount of produce wasted in America is staggering. The National Resources Defense Council reports that up to 40 percent of food in the country is lost or wasted during the journey from “Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Furthermore, the NRDC reports that American households, on average, throw out about a quarter of the food they buy. Properly storing food means not only money saved in the household budget, but also less landfill space occupied.
Countertop Produce Storage
If your produce requires additional ripening, the countertop is the perfect place for it. Many fruits and vegetables come to stores unripe, often because ripe fruit is too fragile to endure transport. Examples of items shipped while unripe include peaches, pears, avocados, some melons, and bananas. Once purchased, placing the items in a paper bag along with a ripe fruit hastens ripening by concentrating ethylene gasses.
While some claim produce should never be stored in the refrigerator, once ripe, refrigeration is generally the best option for preventing spoilage, with a few exceptions:
- Ripe tomatoes can suffer from refrigeration, as the cold temperatures cause cell breakdown and make for a mealy and mushy tomato.
- Potatoes gain sweetness when refrigerated, but also become mealy and gritty.
- Herbs, especially basil, tend to take on the flavors of other foods when stored in the fridge, in addition to turning an unappetizing brownish black color.
- Onions should not be kept in refrigerators because the environment is too damp, which will cause mold to grow.
- Bananas turn black when refrigerated—a particularly unappetizing shade that calls to mind the song about the Grinch Who Stole Christmas: “You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel.” Granted, the flesh inside is OK to eat, but getting past the black peel is tough on the appetite.
Produce Refrigeration Basics
Refrigerators actually have features that help keep produce fresher and more palatable for longer periods. Consider the humidity drawer; most new fridges have them, and they adjust humidity levels easily enough, usually by moving a lever or tab.
Some separate items by fruit versus vegetable, but the best results come from sorting and storing according to rot and wilt tendencies. Items that rot quickly, such as apples and pears, do best in low humidity drawers. Low humidity settings mean that the vents into the drawer are more open, allowing more of the ethylene gas that promotes ripening (and eventual spoilage) to escape. Other low humidity loving items include:
- Ripe bananas
Items that wilt easily, such as lettuces, herbs, and leafy greens, do better in a drawer set for high humidity. Keeping water vapor in allows these items to remain crisp for longer periods. Other types of produce that benefit from higher humidity include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
Refrigeration Starts at Harvest
Many fruits and vegetables enter the refrigeration process almost from the time of harvest. Growers go to great lengths to move produce from the field to cold storage quickly. Gilberto Salazar grows watermelons and grapes, among other items. His packaging operations are set up so that his produce, once picked and packaged, quickly go into cold storage until shipment. Once at market, produce is routinely stored at cool temperatures to stave off spoilage and damage.
Keep Certain Items Separate No Matter Where You Store Them
It seems as if potatoes and onions, both vegetables that grow underground and do best in dark, cool storage areas, should be fine to store together. However, there is a fair amount of debate over whether or not they should be stored apart from one another. It all comes down to gasses, and both are to blame. They each emit gasses that make the other spoil.
Plenty of other items make strange bedfellows, usually due to ethylene gas. Apples, avocados, bananas, figs, honeydew melons, peaches, pears, nectarines, and plums are common ethylene producers. Produce items sensitive to the gas include asparagus, beans, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, green onions, mushrooms, and even watermelon.
Stop Wasting Food and Money
The United Nations Environmental Programme reports that about a third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. We even live in a society where the FDA tells us, “When in doubt, throw it out.” According to Businessweek, a family of four in the U.S. throws away about 20 pounds of food every month at a cost of about $2,275 per year. However, taking a few steps to ensure proper storage may avert questionable food safety, provide us with better nutrition, and, of course, save money.