While your butternut squash may be stored for a year, strawberries seem to go bad before your very eyes. The way you store your harvest can extend its usefulness and reduce waste.
Peak of freshness
We prefer harvesting and enjoying the fruits of our labor at their peak of freshness and sweetness. This is why my little yellow cherry tomatoes and groundcherries rarely make it into the house. Of course, if we ate everything as soon as it ripened, we wouldn’t have anything left for later, and we’d probably have a stomachache.
Temperature, humidity, and time are the major factors determining freshness when it comes to fruits and vegetables. For any harvest that isn’t eaten right away, there are several things you can do to help maintain flavor and quality.
Location, location, location
Where fruits and vegetables are stored makes a big difference in how long they stay fresh. Some produce belongs on your countertop and some need a dry, cool, dark place. Other fruits and vegetables will stay their best in the crisper drawer, while others are best stored on a refrigerator shelf. We’ll get to the particulars in a moment.
Another freshness factor revolves around the packaging materials used. This has a lot to do with ethylene gas. Ethylene gas is the chemical responsible for ripening, and some fruits produce more than others, while others are very sensitive to the ethylene produced by their neighbors. Apples, bananas, celery, and onions produce a lot of ethylene gas and should be stored away from other fruits and vegetables. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, green beans, and unripe bananas are very ethylene-sensitive and require protection. You may want to consider designating one crisper drawer for non-ethylene-sensitive produce, such as berries and citrus.
That protection normally comes in the form of plastic bags and reusable containers. One of my new faves when it comes to food storage is beeswax wraps. They are cloth dipped in beeswax. They work better than I expected, and they’re good for the environment. Other containers include paper bags and damp paper towels, depending on the crop. The best way to keep celery fresh is to wrap it in a paper towel and then aluminum foil.
Contrary to what you might expect, it is better if you do not wash produce before storing it. While you certainly want to brush off any soil or debris, it is better to hold off on washing until you are ready to use it. Any residual water sets the stage for rot, so be sure to dry anything you have to wash before storing. You can also extend the life of your cilantro and asparagus by storing them upright in the fridge with the cut ends in water. And remove carrot, radish, and other leafy tops before storing.
People used ice to keep food from going bad for a very long time. The first refrigerator was built in 1834. Crisper drawers were invented one year later. Crisper drawers work by maintaining higher humidity levels than are found in the rest of the refrigerator. Most crisper drawers have closeable vents. When the vent is shut, humidity is higher. This is ideal for your leafy greens. When that vent is open, humidity levels drop. This is better for things like apples and pears. Having the vent open also releases some of the ethylene gas that speeds ripening.
Perishable food is best stored at 37°F to 41°F (3°C to 5°C). These cooler temperatures reduce bacterial growth, thereby slowing rot and decomposition. That’s why refrigerators are such a good idea. But your fridge’s temperatures vary.
Refrigerators have a variety of temperature zones. The front of the top shelf and the meat drawer are the coldest, making them the best places for your eggs, butter, and meat. Your apples will last the longest if stored on the back of the top shelf. The back of the middle shelf is colder than the front, making it a good place for leftovers, while the front of the middle shelf is ideal for melons and beans. The back of the bottom shelf is also a good long-term storage spot, but the front of this shelf is often the warmest part of your fridge, making it ideal for corn, mushrooms, and other cold-sensitive produce. As for the door, higher means warmer, and lower means colder.
Before your harvest starts to shrivel or rot, decide which items need long-term storage. You can slice, blanch, and freeze summer squash. While it tends to break down with cooking, it still makes excellent additions to soups and stews long after the summer sun has left your garden.
Herbs can be dried. And if you end up with too many grapes, you can always hang clusters in a corner of your kitchen, or loose on a steamer until they turn into raisins. It really works.
Canning, drying, and pickling are other long-term storage options. And be sure to check with friends, neighbors, and local charities to see if they could use some of your abundant harvest.
Finally, remember the adage: when in doubt, throw it out. Or add it to the compost pile.
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.