Use canning jars when storing berries. PHOTOS BY DONNA DULFER
Talk Of The Table
Fresh for longer: proper storage techniques for produce
By Donna Dulfer
Good ideas sometimes are the result of frustration. When a neighbor complained about throwing out fruits and vegetables that had rotted in the refrigerator, I shared some storage techniques to slow down food decay to her. Why not write about it, she wondered, and help others save money while preventing food being thrown into landfills. Thank you, Maylo!
When it comes to storing produce, the most important question is, “Does the food need a moist or dry environment?” Certain foods require humidity to stay crisp, while others need dryness to prevent mold from growing. The trick is to know the difference. Zippered plastic bags, glass jars, tin foil, paper bags and cloth bags all can be used for storing food.
Berries, melons, bananas and cucumbers
The quickest food to rot is strawberries. Sometimes the process has begun before you get the berries home—very frustrating. Remember the saying: “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch?” Well, there is truth there. If there is mold on one strawberry, it creates an environment for more to grow. Berries do not like moisture.
Immediately take your strawberries out of the carton, inspect them and remove the overripe ones to store separately or eat immediately. Don’t wash the strawberries until you are ready to consume them. Store the berries in a glass canning jar with a screw top lid and place in the refrigerator. I use a different jar for each type of berry.
When I have an abundance of berries, I store them in the freezer for future consumption. Rinse the berries, pat them dry with paper towel, remove the stem if there is one and place in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Freeze them for a couple of hours and, when frozen solid, transfer to a zippered plastic bag for long-term storage. This is known as IQF, Individually Quick Frozen, which keeps your berries from freezing in one big clump.
Rather than cutting up watermelon or cantaloupe into cubes and storing in a container in the refrigerator, cut slices as you eat them. The melons will retain their juice, though the partially cut fruit takes up more space.
If your bananas ripen too quickly, peel them, wrap in Saran wrap and store in a plastic bag in the freezer. These are great for smoothies or banana bread.
Cucumbers don’t like moisture either. Typically cucumbers arrive home in a plastic bag and are put directly into the vegetable bin. Don’t do this. Plastic inhibits air flow and traps humid air in the bag. Transfer the cucumbers from the plastic bag to a cloth or paper bag. Cucumbers need to breathe.
Paper towel helps with preserving lettuce leaves.
Lettuce, celery, carrots and mushrooms
On the other hand, lettuce and other leafy greens (kale, chard, spinach) go limp if deprived of a moist environment. They will dry out when exposed to air and, left in an open-ended plastic bag, they will wilt quickly.
If buying whole heads of lettuce, remove the twist tie that holds the leaves together; it is bruising the leaves. Now you have two options. Take the whole head, unwashed, and wrap completely in paper towel and put in a large zippered storage bag; I use the 2.5-gallon size. Sprinkle water on the paper towel to dampen it, zip the bag shut and store.
Alternatively, separate the leaves and wash them, lay them on a long strip of dry paper towel, roll it up and store in a large zippered plastic bag. Should your greens go limp, you can revitalize them by placing them in a bowl of ice water for about 10 minutes.
This trick also works for celery and carrots that have lost their crispness. This may sound weird but the best way to preserve celery initially is to wrap the entire bunch, still connected at the bottom, in tin foil, fully enclosed.
Mushrooms are tricky. If left in their original box, they get slimy and degrade. Stored in a paper bag, they may dry out a little. However, dried-out mushrooms will resuscitate when they encounter moisture, so a paper bag is my recommended storage technique.
Refrigeration vs. room temperature storage
Some foods need refrigeration to maintain their freshness, whereas others should be stored at room temperature. Both onions and potatoes like room temperature, but don’t store them near each other. The off-gassing of the potato affects the onions.
Sweet onions have a shorter life and can be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in paper towel. Garlic should be stored at room temperature, as should winter squash (butternut, acorn). If you see a sprout growing from your garlic, it is still good, just split the clove and remove the sprout, which can be bitter. Tomatoes too should not be refrigerated until they are cut. Their texture changes once refrigerated, so try to use them quickly and store them in the warmest part of the refrigerator, usually the top shelf.
Ripen certain foods on the counter and refrigerate once they are soft. This is appropriate for avocados and peaches. If your lemons and limes are getting too ripe, juice them, pour the juice into an ice cube tray, freeze and store the cubes in a zippered plastic bag for future use.
This is also a good way to store leftover stock. Each ice cube is about one tablespoon. Food saver containers that resemble fruits and vegetables are also a convenient way to store foods. I have tomato, red onion, white onion, lemon and avocado savers that I use all the time.
Lastly, whole grains and nuts contain fat and can go rancid. If you are not going to consume them within a couple of weeks, store them in the refrigerator or freezer.
Hopefully, these tips will help preserve the foods you have bought. This translates into fewer trips to the garbage facility, less stress on your food budget and no more guilt over tossed fruits and vegetables.
Donna Dulfer and her husband have lived in Big Canoe since 2014. She is a self-proclaimed foodie who has attended culinary school and taught cooking classes. Donna loves trying new recipes and strives to follow a clean diet, though she has been known to slip on occasions.