Don’t you just hate to open the fridge only to find your expensive, local, or organic vegetables limp and rotting in plastic bags, or in your crisper drawer? Do you hate the idea of wasting food, time and money as much as I do? Do you sincerely want to eat more fresh vegetables, but have better things to do than deal with the slimy mess of rotten vegetables you haven’t had time to prepare and eat before they went bad?
Me too! I decided to find out exactly WHY vegetables go bad so quickly, and if there is anything you and I can do about it.
What I found was GOOD NEWS! It doesn’t require designing or buying a new refrigerator, or taking extra time to shop several times a week. In fact, many vegetables will last a week, or even two, if you just attend to a few key issues. Of course, the first thing to do is to buy truly fresh, and that means, whenever possible, local and in-season.
Once you buy those exquisite vegetables, here are the four factors to address:
1) Remove Microbes: bacteria, fungi, and yeasts
2) Maintain Humidity
3) Air Flow, to get rid of ethylene gas
4) Cold Temperature
REMOVE MICROBES: Wash vegetables well in lots of cold water and remove any damaged leaves or spots before storing vegetables. (If leafy greens are wilted, you can first soak them in lukewarm water for 15 minutes to rehydrate, then wash in cold water).
HUMIDITY: Refrigerators suck moisture from unprotected vegetables. Most vegetables thrive in 80-95% relative humidity – damp but not wet. That’s why, in the past, we’ve stored vegetables in plastic. But plastic doesn’t work very well, does it? Sadly, plastic traps ethylene gas. So, we need…
AIR FLOW: Ethylene gas from vegetables naturally makes them ripen. But there’s ripe and then there’s rotten! Ethylene gas needs to escape, rather than accumulate. That’s why plastic doesn’t work. (Except those plastic “green bags” that absorb ethylene gas.)
TEMPERATURE: Low temps, just above freezing, slow the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts that naturally occur even on well-washed produce. Low temps also slow the release of ethylene gas. So make sure your refrigerator runs well below 40 °F. Get those vegetables home, wash them, and get them into your refrigerator as soon as possible after you buy them
In a nutshell:
Keep vegetables clean, in high humidity, cold temperatures, and breathing: exposed to airflow to reduce ethylene gas.
Are you wondering how to do that? “Clean” and “cold” are pretty straightforward but, “Holy crisper drawer, Produce Maven,” you ask, “How do I keep my vegetables both humid and ventilated at the same time?”
So how well does your crisper drawer work? Mine? Not so much. I have friends who fondly call the crisper drawer “the rotter.” Crisper drawers do work better with an added source of moisture. It helps to wrap vegetables in damp paper towels or damp kitchen towels. But if there’s no ventilation, the crisper drawer can trap ethylene gas and actually promote rotting!
You’ve also probably tried to wash and spin-dry salad greens and then keep them in plastic. That doesn’t work for more than a day or two, maybe three if you are lucky, because the greens wilt from lack of humidity and then rot from the accumulation of ethylene gas.
The “green bags” that absorb ethylene gas work well only with a source of humidity, like a damp paper towel. And they only last so long. And they are plastic. They work, but they are a lot of work. And waste. I don’t like that so much.
So what’s best?
I found that vegetables stay fresh longest and best when washed and then stored in damp fabric in a cold refrigerator. As long as the fabric is even a little damp, it keeps the humidity high but allows the ethylene gas to escape. This vastly lengthens the time vegetables stay crisp and edible.
HERE ARE THE BASIC STEPS:
Wash and remove any damaged spots or leaves before storing, to reduce surface bacteria, mold and yeast growth.
Keep vegetables in high humidity: wrap in moist paper towels or damp absorbent fabric.
Allow vegetables to breathe: do NOT store in closed, plastic bags that trap ethylene gas (unless you buy the special “green” bags that actually absorbs ethylene gas).
Keep your vegetables cold, just above 32 °F but certainly under 40 °F. Test different places in your fridge with a thermometer if you aren’t sure how cold it runs!
That’s it! Of course, there are a few exceptions to these principles. (Aren’t there always exceptions?) I’ve put together a handy, printable reference chart you can use until you learn the ropes and memorize the exceptions!
(Download and print a full-sized PDF here!)
Now, in case you are curious, MY PERSONAL FAVORITE WAY to store vegetables is the Vejibag. I developed Vejibags to preserve the precious organic salad greens coming from my winter greenhouse on the coast of Maine. Vejibags are made with the best US-sourced fabric available for the purpose: beautiful, un-dyed, 100% Organic French Terry cotton. Vejibags are a practical alternative to wrapping vegetables in kitchen towels. They are easy to pull from the fridge and they promote both high humidity AND air flow. They safely absorb excess moisture and allow it to slowly evaporate. This means you can put damp salad greens right in the bag! A damp Vejibag keeps humidity high but ethylene gas low. And, if you want to support small, local, ethical business, Vejibags are made at home by women in Maine. Our little cottage industry is as green and as ethical as any on the market!
If you care to read more about vegetable storage, here are some good references:
Store at low temps.
http://www.4theegg.com/FVstorage.pdf (Lettuce can be kept for 3 weeks)
Maintain moisture without wetness.
Info on ethylene gas: