The Produce Worker's Guide to Storing 25 Common Fruits and Veggies
Unless you belong to a CSA or grow your own garden, produce can take up a huge chunk of your grocery budget, and throwing away food can also feel like throwing away money. As a former professional cook and produce worker, however, I know that getting the most out of your produce can be tricky if you don't know the best way to store or prep it. (See also: Waste Not, Want Not: Stop Throwing Away Your Food!)
A note about freezing in general — there's less chance of freezer burn when you use a sealable freezer-weight bag; you can also suck out the air with a drinking straw to ensure that there's no air in the bag before you close it. I have also found that freezer bags are ideal when you are really hungry and impatient, because you can rip them open and toss them into whatever you are cooking to shorten the defrost time. Freezing is a much faster and easier way of preserving food than canning or putting in jars for the winter. For vegetables, you just need to blanche them first. There are many methods to blanching vegetables, and cooking times vary depending on the size and thickness. All you really need is some basic blanching instructions and a little practice.
Whatever your preferred method may be, I've rounded up all 25 items from the previous produce worker's guide to picking produce and laid out some basic prepping and storage tips to help you get the most out of your favorite fruits and vegetables.
The key to making an avocado last for a few days is to save the pit once you cut it open. I learned this trick from a chef when I worked at a ranch in New Mexico, where guacamole was part of our daily menu. Now, any time I have leftover guac, I place a pit in it before I store it in the fridge (a little lemon juice can also do the trick). If you only used half of the fruit and want to save the rest for later, keep the pit inside the half you want to save to prevent it from turning brown. I learned recently that you can also freeze avocados. Mash the avocado as if you were making guacamole, mix in a small amount of lemon juice, and place the mixture in a freezer bag. For suggestions and photos demonstrating different ways to cut an avocado, check out this Simply Recipes post on preparing avacados (I always use the knife method to remove the pit, but I recommend not using this method unless you are comfortable with a knife).
Other than the peel-and-eat method, there are a number of ways to make bananas last, even for bananas that have already started to turn dark brown. You can always turn overripe bananas into bread, pies, pudding, smoothies, and, if you are feeling industrious, use them to make your own baby food. Freezing them is another option if you don't eat or use them right away. It's a good idea to freeze them in slices, though I know some people who peel them and freeze them whole. If you don't want them to ripen too quickly after bringing them home, you can put them in the refrigerator. Keep in mind that they will not continue to ripen in the fridge, so make sure they are ready to eat before you do this.
Most stores sell basil in large bunches, which is frustrating when you only need a few leaves for a recipe. Or if you have a garden, you know that once basil turns to seed or gets too tall, it is too bitter to eat. Pesto is always a way to turn all that extra basil into a meal, and it is easy to freeze (better to leave out the cheese and add when you are heating it up). When I'm not in the mood for pesto, or I'm just too lazy to make it, I like to chop up basil and freeze it with water in ice cube trays so that I have small amounts of it to cook with after the garden has been put to bed. You can do this with any fresh herb, and it's a smart way to use up what you don't use from bunches you get in the store.
Beets and other root vegetables tend to get soft when you store them for too long in the refrigerator, especially during the summer if your fridge tends to "sweat" like mine. The moisture makes the beets break down and lose their firmness. Like carrots, beets last longer when you peel and grate them. Beets make a mess any time you prepare them, but especially when grating them, so remember the apron and get creative. I love shredded beets on salads, and they make a nice garnish for meat and rice dishes. You can use a standard cheese grater, but remember to peel them first. Steaming them and adding a little lemon juice before storing them will stay fresh for up to a week at least, and they make a great quick snack.
No matter what kind of berry it is, it tends to have a short life span in my house, and the raspberries from my bushes rarely make it inside before they are eaten. I will say that most berries are delicate and shrivel within a few days of picking. Unless you are eating them immediately or turning them into a pie, freezing berries is the best way to extend their lives. The good news is that you don't have to do a lot of prep, with the exception of strawberries. Wash them if they need it, and when they are dry stick them in a freezer bag.
While broccoli will last in the refrigerator for up to a week without any prep, it will last a little longer if you cut the tops and store them in a container. You can also blanche and freeze them if you like to keep a regular stock of veggies in your freezer. For most people, the only question about getting the most out of broccoli is what to do with the stalks. Most stores sell broccoli by weight, which means you are also paying for the stalk. Even though it is a little tougher than the head, it is a versatile ingredient if you know what to do it with it. Peel and slice the stalk to toss in a stir fry, use it in a vegetable stock, or chop it into small chunks to throw in a pasta sauce or stew. My favorite use for the stalk is to grate it or chop it finely and make broccoli slaw. You can replace the cabbage with broccoli stalks, or you can add them as an extra ingredient. I think the stalks are just as tasty as the crowns, and you will get a lot more out of the cost of broccoli if you find a way to use them.
Other than grating your carrots to extend their shelf life at home, you can also turn soft carrots into juice or other purees. I like to make carrot ginger dressing because it's versatile, and you can customize most carrot dressing recipes to match your tastes. Blanching and freezing most vegetables, especially root veggies, is best to do when the vegetable is fresh. This is an excellent option if you have a garden or belong to a CSA, since there's often more than enough for an entire family in one share.
Citrus needs to stay cold unless you are going to eat it soon after bringing it home. The one type of fruit that tends to go bad in my fridge is citrus. I don't know why, but I always remember that blood orange when it's too late, and I find it shoved in a corner covered in blue fuzz. Like most items in this list, my recommendation is to peel it and place the slices in a clear container in the fridge. This method also helps you remember what is in your refrigerator, so you are more likely to eat it before it goes bad. Or you can make juice. Citrus juicers are cheap and easy to find.
Even if you've already read the article on how to pick produce at the store, this bears repeating — corn will last longer if you buy it with the husk and don't shuck it until you are ready to cook it. The husk keeps the corn moist and fresh. Also, keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to eat it. Most stores will display corn out of the cooler because customers tend to buy what's right in front of them in a beautiful display, but our department would take down the display at the end of the day and put the corn in the cooler overnight (same for other perishables that you might typically see displayed out on the floor). Corn can also be blanched and frozen, either on the cob or cut and cooked slowly for a cream-style corn.
Cukes will last several days without any prep in the fridge. But they last a little longer if you take an extra minute to slice them and store them in a container in the fridge, or put them in separate plastic bags for ready-to-go snacks. Making a cucumber-and-onion salad with your favorite vinaigrette will extend their lives, but they can get mushy. When slicing cukes for salads, you can also make them a little fancier with a potato slicer. Just peel four or five small strips in equally-sized intervals, from the tip to tip, and then slice as you normally would.
You will find many eggplant varieties out there, and this is one produce item I would recommend not cutting before using it. What's most important to consider when prepping eggplant is that it tends to have a bitter flavor unless you press all the liquid out before cooking. There are many ways to press and prep eggplant, and I've picked out a short YouTube video that shows you one of the simplest ways to press eggplant using Kosher salt. The longer you leave the salt on the eggplant slices, the less bitter it will be.
Unless they are fresh, figs should always be stored in the refrigerator. Even if they are fresh, you should eat them within a few days after they ripen, or put them in the fridge until you are ready to use them. Figs are a great addition to any holiday or winter dish. Try dried figs on salads or slice them and add to a grilled cheese using a strong cheese such as Gruyere or Fontina. If you love lamb like me, try this recipe for leg of lamb with balsamic-fig-basil sauce. It takes about two hours, but it is completely worth it!
Beans will break down faster in a plastic bag, particularly if there's moisture in the bag. Freeze them if you aren't going to use them right away. Blanching green beans is easy, but you want to make sure they are cooked but still crisp, so be sure not to leave them in the boiling water for longer than about a minute. Also, be sure to drain and dry the beans completely to avoid freezer burn. I like to eat green beans raw if they are really fresh, but in the middle of the winter, they tend to lose their luster. No matter how you choose to prepare them, make sure you don't over-cook them. The same goes for asparagus and broccoli.
Even the healthiest bunch of kale should be eaten within a few days, before it starts to wilt. Cutting it up won't make it last longer. If the bunch has started to wilt, simply chop off the ends and soak it in warm water. Then put the kale in the refrigerator for a few minutes until it looks alive again. The easiest way to remove the leafy, edible parts is to hold the stem at the bottom and pull the greens away from the stalk. Kale cooks quickly, so unless you are putting it in a soup or stew, you don't need to leave it in the pan for very long (five minutes usually, or until it starts to get soft).
One of the easiest side dishes to make is garlicky kale. Finely chop some fresh garlic, using whatever amount fits your taste buds, and saute the garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil on a low heat for about five minutes or so. Add the kale, and salt and pepper to taste; then stir around the mixture until the kale turns bright green (or purple depending on the variety). I highly recommend using a cast iron skillet if you have one. I've found that kale doesn't tend to freeze well, but you can certainly try it. I would recommend not leaving the kale in the boiling water for more than 30 seconds. If you like to make your own veggie stock, save the stalks to add to your mix.
Unless you live in a warmer climate, the lettuce you buy at the grocery store in the winter has probably traveled thousands of miles to get there, leaving it dried out and wilted. Reviving a wilted head of lettuce is similar to prepping kale and other leafy greens. Trim off the bottom of the heads and soak it in warm water before refrigerating it for a few minutes just before you are ready to prep it. You may need to rinse it again and send it through a salad spinner before making your salad.
Romaine tends to be one of the heartier and more versatile varieties of lettuce, which is why I usually go for romaine, especially in the winter. Also, I try to find fresh romaine instead of the packaged romaine hearts, since those tend to be more expensive. One way to save time during the work week is to prep your lettuce ahead of time. Be sure to rinse and dry it as well as you can before chopping it. Then store the chopped lettuce in an airtight container in the fridge. I've found that it lasts up to a week longer than keeping a fresh head in the crisper.
Buying melons that have been cut in half and wrapped in plastic saves you prep time, but the melon will not last as long. Try to find fresh melons when they are in season. If you are only using half of the melon, and you need to wrap the other half in plastic wrap, remove the seeds and pulp in the middle. The melon will get a lot mushier if you don't. Watermelon tends to last longer if you cut it into large pieces or chunks and store in airtight containers in the fridge.
Mushrooms tend not to last more than a week, no matter what you do to them. However, it is important that you don't wash them until you are ready to use them. It's best to store them in a paper bag in the fridge if you don't prep them. You can slice them and store them for a few days after, but make sure you use a good container, and remember to wash and dry them thoroughly before prepping or storing them. You can also freeze mushrooms, but be sure to use them within three months. Dried mushrooms are always a nice addition to soups and stews in the winter.
If I know I'm making a recipe that calls for onions in the coming week, I will sometimes prep them when I get home from the store. All you need to do is dice or slice them and put them in a container in the fridge, but try to avoid plastic containers since they will retain the strong odor. Sliced red onions are great on salads and sandwiches, and it's always nice to have them on hand. If you don't prep your onions immediately, store them in a cool dark place (root cellars are ideal if you have one). Try to avoid putting onions in the fridge since the moisture can cause them to break down faster, and avoid plastic bags for the same reason.
Unless they are not ripe yet, pears should be stored in the refrigerator. You can always slice them for snacks throughout the week, but be aware that they turn brown faster than most fruits. Use a little lemon juice to keep them from getting dark spots.
As with onions, peppers can be sliced or chopped ahead of time or stored whole. Either way, they should be stored in the refrigerator. Sweet peppers are also a nice addition to grilled cheeses. My favorite grilled cheese is cheddar, avocado, Dijon or spicy mustard, and sliced orange peppers. You can use tomato as well, but I prefer the crispness of the pepper.
Potatoes and onions are very similar in that they should be stored in a dry, dark place rather than the refrigerator. Potatoes tend to turn brown soon after you cut them open, so use lemon juice, or soak thick slices in water overnight for excellent oven fries. Soaking them keeps them from drying out when you bake them.
Like other root veggies, radishes will go soft more quickly in a fridge. Chop, grate, or slice them and store in containers. If you buy an entire bunch, cut off the greens once you get them home, but don't toss them. The greens are edible, and they are a delightful addition to soups or raw on a salad. Be sure to chop them finely, since they can be stringy and hard to chew.
Try to avoid storing tomatoes in the refrigerator unless you are chopping them to cut down on prep time for a later meal. Green or less-ripe tomatoes will ripen after they've been picked, but you have to leave them in a warm spot, such as a sunny window, or in a brown paper bag. Placing them near apples can also quicken the ripening process. If you do prep and store them in the fridge, make sure you use them within a few days. They tend to get mushy and lose their flavor after.
Winter squash should be stored outside of the refrigerator, unless you are preparing it for a recipe. Always peel any kind of winter squash, and to make your life easier and to avoid wasting any of the meat, cook the squash in the oven at around 350°F until the squash is soft but not mushy. This makes it much easier to peel. But make sure the squash has cooled off before you try peeling it. Steaming or baking beets and turnips also makes peeling much easier and less wasteful.
Zucchini (and Summer Squash)
Zucchini and summer squash are some of the most versatile vegetables to use and can add variety to any dish. You can slice, julienne, or chop them, leaving the skin on or peeling it according to your personal tastes, and store in containers for later use. They also store fairly well without being prepped, but they start to break down after about a week depending on the shape they are in when you buy them. Because it is moisture-rich, you don't necessarily have to blanch zucchini if you want to freeze it. If you plan to make zucchini bread, all you have to do is grate and measure out whatever the recipe calls for, and then place each serving in a freezer bag. When you thaw it, just remove the excess water. For a southern flare, try fried zucchini or summer squash. You don't have to use breading if you don't have any; just make sure you use enough oil to get them golden brown. Fried okra or fried green tomatoes do require some kind of breading for optimal flavor (and authenticity).