Are you wasting food because it ripens—then rots—faster than you can eat it? (We're sheepishly raising our hands along with you.) Storing food the right way can make all the difference. Ethylene, a natural gas that's released from some fruits and vegetables, speeds up the ripening process. That can be an advantage—to ripen an avocado quickly, seal it in a paper bag—but too much ethylene can cause produce to spoil. And it's not all about ethylene; temperature plays a role, as does how and when you wash a fruit or vegetable, and how and where it's stored. Use this handy chart and read on to help you know where (and how) to store your produce.
Determining whether to store your fruits and veggies in or out of the fridge is really only half the battle. Some fruits and veggies should be stored separately no matter where they land. Ethylene gas, a natural gas that some fruits emit, can speed the ripening process of some (but not other) fruits and vegetables. This can sometimes be a good thing. Want to ripen your avocado faster? Store it next to a ripe banana in a paper bag and let the ethylene from the banana do its magic.
But you don't always want your fruits and veggies ripening on fast-forward, because they may end up rotting before you can eat them. A good rule of thumb is to keep high-ethylene gas-emitting fruits apart from other produce. Apples, avocados, stone fruits, pears, bananas and tomatoes are a few of the top offenders, with delicate leafy greens being some of the most susceptible to ethylene gas.
Also, keep onions to themselves. Onions love to share their fragrance with their neighbors (especially after they've been cut), so they should be stored separately and especially away from potatoes, which will wilt and sprout more quickly when onions are present.
Sliced fruits and vegetables are great to have on hand for snacking and to save space in the fridge. Most fruits will last about 5 days after being sliced (some vegetables a few days longer) as long as you follow a few rules: store them in an airtight container and always refrigerate cut produce. Fruits like apples, pears, bananas and avocado are not the best candidates for slicing ahead of time since they brown quickly. Instead, store these ripe fruits (with the exception of the bananas) whole in your crisper drawer. The crisper keeps the moisture in check which, in turn, adds longevity to your produce.
It's always a good idea to wash all of your fruits and vegetables before you eat them, even ones you peel. Why? Bacteria that cause foodborne illness can cling to the surface of the fruit or vegetable. (Cantaloupes, in particular, have had problems with Salmonella.) Even if you're not eating the skin or peel, bacteria may contaminate your cutting board and work their way into the flesh. The chances are pretty remote, but it's better to be safe than sorry. On a less scary note, washing simply whisks away dirt, which is never fun to bite into. Most fruits and veggies benefit from a quick shower under cold running water, but there are a few tricks to washing that can keep some of the more delicate produce intact:
Leafy Greens: We've found the best way to wash leafy greens is to separate the leaves from the head and soak them in a bath of cold water for about 5 minutes. Swirl the leaves gently with your hand to loosen the debris and then lift them out of the water and into a salad spinner and spin to dry. If you don't have a good salad spinner, it's time to invest. Storing wet leaves can turn your greens into a mushy mess almost overnight.
Berries: Berries are delicate and they hate to be wet, so washing them can be tricky. We've found the best way is to rinse them in a strainer, then spread them out on a paper towel-lined plate to dry before you stick them in the fridge. A microwave steamer (or any storage vessel that has a breathable rack at the bottom) is a great place to store rinsed berries. It keeps them from swimming in any water that may settle.
Related: The Best Way to Store Fresh Berries
Herbs: Wash fresh herbs like you would salad greens in cool water and then spin them dry. With the exception of basil, fresh herbs like to be stored in the fridge with a damp (but not soaking wet) paper towel to keep them fresh. You can also store them like a little mini bouquet of flowers in your fridge by trimming off an inch or so of the stem and sticking them in a jar of water with a plastic bag loosely covering the bunch. You can use the same trick for asparagus too; it helps keep the flower ends fresh. Ditto for basil, but keep you basil bouquet on your counter instead of in the fridge.
What's the best time to wash your produce? Well, if you're super-efficient and very good at drying, you can wash your produce as soon as you get it home, but that's not practical for most people. Just before you plan to use it is the best time. If you're planning for a party and don't want to be stuck washing while your guests mingle, it's fine to wash ahead of time. Just remember, excess moisture is the enemy of fresh fruits and vegetables. Make sure your produce is dry before you store it.