In one of my previous blogs, “Living Green, Controlling Expenses, and Reducing Food Waste“, I made some comments on an article regarding cutting food waste and the proper storage of certain food items. I thought that I would expand upon that today and draw upon my produce manager experience working for The Kroger Company. Hopefully, you will find some tips below for you and your family to help keep your produce fresher longer and reduce the amount of spoilage and waste that occurs.
Selling produce is a lot of work, for nowhere in the grocery store is the perception of freshness more important, and nowhere in the grocery store does food spoil faster than in the produce department. Hours are spent each and every day by produce employees culling cases of fruits and vegetables to remove those that have been damaged or have spoiled. In the produce department, we had a saying, “The worst time to sell produce is when it tastes the best.” That is to say, fruits and vegetables typically taste their best right as they have reached the peak of their ripeness and right before they begin to degrade rapidly in quality, but it is the worst time to sell them because people generally do not buy fruits and vegetables at the precise moment they want to consume them. There were tips and best-practices, however, that ensured that we could maintain the freshness of our produce longer and minimize the cost of shrink.
Below are some of the “insider” tips:
1. Know the shelf life of certain fruits and vegetables and buy them as needed to ensure they are at their peak freshness. If you plan on making strawberry shortcake this weekend, for example, don’t buy the berries on Monday. They will most likely be moldy by then. Buy unripened produce if you will not consume it in the first couple of days. You can utilize certain steps to quicken the ripening process if you need to. For example, store bananas, pears, peaches and avocados in paper bags at room temperature to make them ripen (also see 2b. below). Note: peaches ripen best from 60-65 degrees. Room temperatures of 75 degrees or higher can actually make the peaches rot without ripening. (Here is a short list of shelf lives of common produce items. While this list displays the entire shelf life from the patch to the pantry, it does help by indicating which items are more perishable.)
2. Know how to store different types of produce. All produce is not equal, nor should they all be stored the same way: in the bottom of the veggie bin of your refrigerator. There are several produce varieties that lose quality or spoil from refrigeration.
a. Any produce item containing a pit should not be refrigerated. Mangoes, avocados, peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines should be stored at just below room temperature, preferably in a cool, dark place. In addition, bananas do not need to kept refrigerated, and do well for several days hanging from a banana rack on the kitchen counter. If you desire to slow their ripening process, stick them in the fridge. Keep in mind that the peels of bananas stored in the fridge will turn black quickly.
b. Apples should always be refrigerated and kept away from other produce. At the very least, apples should be wrapped and tied off in their own separate bag, using care to remove any damaged ones. Apples release ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening phase in most other produce. These gases are released faster if the apple is damaged in any way, thus the saying, “One bad apple will spoil the bushel.” Of course, you can use this to your advantage as well. Want to use those green bananas for banana bread tomorrow? Put the bananas in a paper bag with an apple overnight. Works great for avocados, too.
c. Tomatoes should not be refrigerated. Leave tomatoes on the kitchen counter and they will continue to ripen slowly. If kept in the refrigerator, tomatoes will lose their flavor and the flesh will turn somewhat grainy. It is best to buy tomatoes still on the vine as they will continue to draw some remaining life from the attached stem, allowing them to stay fresh longer.
d. Lettuce and celery should be trimmed daily and refreshed in a shallow pan of cold water. To trim, turn the celery or head of lettuce over to reveal the brown “butt.” Using a knife, remove a thin slice of the bottom of the butt, to reveal a fresh layer. This new layer will absorb moisture into the plant and keep it fresher longer. On the other hand, the dead, brown layer is withered and prevents the vegetable from drawing in the moisture. After trimming, place the lettuce butt-down in a shallow pan of purified water. In our house, we place the lettuce in a small pitcher of Berkey water, then cover loosely with a plastic bag. Lettuce stored this way lasts us a couple of weeks with very little wilting. In fact, we have found that the center of our Romaine heads actually continues growing.
e. Potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place. They are best stored in a paper bag, or in a plastic bag that has been punctured several times to allow the potatoes to breathe. Potatoes generally turn green if kept under fluorescent lighting, and if you find some green ones in the store, this is precisely what has happened. Keep them away from onions when storing, as this will cause both to ripen and rot faster.
f. Onions are best stored in the leg of an old pair of panty hose. Drop an onion in, twist the hose and tie, then drop another in and repeat. Hang the hose in a cool, dark place and the onions should last a month. If you buy onions in a mesh bag, these also can be stored hanging on a hook.
h. Before storing, it is best to rinse and cull your produce. Remove any bruised, rotten or wilted pieces, rinse and then store. These all encourage the ripening process. Do not rinse potatoes, onions or other dry produce left out at room temperature. Also, berries should not be washed until ready to use, but should be quickly rinsed (be careful not to damage the soft exterior flesh – strawberries, especially) before placing in the refrigerator.
3. Don’t break the “cold chain”. Some produce must be kept on constant refrigeration or they begin to spoil rapidly. The most sensitive items in the produce department are berries (all kinds), mushrooms, cut fruit, and fresh-squeezed juices. All of these are highly perishable and every hour off of refrigeration reduces their shelf-life in half. I always advise buying these items last, since the produce department is generally the first department in the store and the typical shopper spends an hour buying groceries. Unpack your groceries right away and store your berries and mushrooms as soon as possible. Other items like cauliflower and broccoli will spoil and turn limp very quickly if not kept cold. They are best kept iced down, if possible.
4. Green peppers wilt very quickly, so they should be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag that has been punctured to allow for breathing, yet will still retain humidity. This is also true for other types of fresh peppers, including jalapenos, serranos and habaneros.
5. If you buy bulk produce, it is very important to cull daily. When fruit turns bad, it does so rapidly, causing a fast deterioration of the flesh, which results in leakage and mold growth. This can quickly spread to adjacent fruits and speed spoilage.
6. Fresh herbs lose life very quickly, often losing their potency and absorbing lingering odors in your fridge while they wait. Buy fresh herbs as needed and use within two to three days.
7. As a matter of food safety, I recommend not buying store-cut melons, which are a source of salmonella and foodborne illness. When cutting melons at home, it is very important to wash the exterior of the melon first to remove any traces of manure or similar substances. If the melon is not washed thoroughly, the process of cutting the fruit will drag the exterior bacteria to the interior flesh of the fruit and contaminate it. Store all cut-fruit immediately to discourage bacteria growth and eat within a couple of days.
8. Handle all fruits and vegetables very carefully, many of them bruise easily, which will reduce the product’s shelf life and decrease the quality. Bananas are extremely fragile. For every foot that a case of bananas is dropped (poorly handled by the truck loaders, produce employee, or checker/bagger) 30% of them will turn black and go bad. Treat them like your grandmother’s china.
9. Grapes can be frozen then later thawed or enjoyed as a frozen treat (seedless varieties). I would not recommend soaking grapes in water as they will absorb more water than their little bodies can hold and the grape will swell and split. Grapes will typically last a week or more if shriveled ones are removed, they are refreshed every other day with cold water, and are stored in a breathable plastic bag. Do not store anything on top of your grapes as this will cause juice to leak out, which will cover the grapes, make them sticky and cause them to mold and rot.
10. Cut up “turning” celery, bell pepper, onions, etc., before they go bad, place them in freezer storage bags and put them in the freezer for later use. These three vegetables freeze and thaw well, especially when used as seasonings in other dishes. I typically dice them, place them in a bag, squeeze out all of the excess air and place them in the freezer to use as needed. Likewise, blackened bananas are generally the highest in sugar content and are excellent in baked breads. Peel the bananas, and stick the fruit in a storage bag in the freezer. Thaw when ready to use.