Many people come home from the grocery store and unload all their produce straight into the refrigerator. And why wouldn't they? We pick up greens and carrots from the refrigerated section of the produce department, so it would stand to reason that they need to be stored similarly at home. What about apples or lemons? In the grocery store they are in bins, but wouldn't they be fresher if stored in the refrigerator, too? "Produce is extremely perishable and poor storage is one of the easiest (and most preventable) ways to waste food at home," says Reilly Brock of Imperfect Produce, which works to eliminate food waste by sourcing and delivering "ugly produce" to your door. Brock believes a lot of produce problems are due to overcrowded refrigerators. "Out of sight, out of mind" is a very real phenomena when it comes to grocery shopping. We've all found forgotten grocery purchases that have wilted and gone bad in the back of the fridge. "The solution is to practice FIFO (first in-first out) when you shop and always try to make a habit of 'shopping your fridge' before you shop the store," says Brock.
Here are some common produce storage mistakes to avoid, plus advice on sensible fruit and vegetable storage.
Storing Certain Produce Together
A good rule of thumb is to never store strong-flavored vegetables, such as onions and garlic, with other produce—their flavor can seep into the other foods. Brock also notes that, "Onions release a gas that will make your potatoes sprout and go bad faster." Ditto apples and bananas: Both release ethylene gas as they ripen and can cause other fruits and vegetables to ripen faster and therefore, go bad more quickly. Potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place, and onions stored in a dark and well-ventilated place. Store apples and bananas away from other fruits, or store them in a paper bag with a fruit that you're trying to ripen quickly, like a hard peach or stubborn avocado suggests Brock.
Keeping the Tops on Carrots and Beets
Carrots, beets, and other root vegetables sold with tops might seem fresher than the same type of produce without tops, but they won't stay that way if stored in the refrigerator at home. "The tops actively draw moisture away from the roots and will make them dry out and go bad faster," says Brock. He recommends removing the tops from these vegetables before storing them, separately, in the refrigerator, but reminds us that the tops are still useable: "Carrot tops are a great substitute for parsley and beet tops are a close cousin to chard."
Storing Tomatoes or Basil in the Refrigerator
Tomatoes are delicate but unless they are cut, there's no need to store them in the refrigerator. Their flavor often diminishes when they're chilled, and the texture can turn mealy as the cold temperature breaks down the membranes inside the fruit. Instead, keep them on your countertop. Basil, an herb commonly paired with tomatoes, doesn't belong in the refrigerator, either. "It's extremely temperature sensitive and will wilt and die if exposed to the cold," says Brock. Prolong the life of basil for pesto or cocktail garnishes by cutting the stem ends (as you would flowers) and keeping it in a jar of water on your countertop.
Ripening Avocados in the Refrigerator
You've purchased an avocado or two for your morning toast or that favorite guacamole recipe only to find it hasn't ripened yet. If you stored it in the refrigerator, you want to note that cold air dramatically slows down the ripening process. "Store avocados on your countertop, near apples or bananas if you're impatient for them to ripen," Brock recommends.
Not Cleaning the Refrigerator Regularly
If you haven't cleaned your fridge recently, it's worth putting time aside to organize it. "A clean and organized fridge not only makes cooking easier and less stressful, but it will also dramatically reduce how much food you end up wasting. The act of cleaning your fridge is also extremely educational; you'll very quickly spot patterns in how you shop, store, and sometimes waste food. Noticing what you're over-buying or storing improperly makes it really easy to self-correct and get back on track," says Brock.