The ultimate guide to making produce last longer

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It’s estimated that the average household wastes more than 30% of the food it obtains, a staggering statistic with both financial and environmental consequences. One hundred and forty million acres of land are needed to produce this lost or wasted food each year, which is about the size of New York and California combined.

Storing foods properly to avoid spoilage can eliminate some of this waste, especially when paired with better shopping and meal-planning habits.

Use this guide to keep common household fruits and vegetables fresh for longer and keep food out of the compost bin.

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The Basics

There are three main things to consider when storing fresh fruits and vegetables: ethylene, airflow and temperature.

Ethylene gas is naturally released by some fruits and quickens the ripening (and decay) of nearby produce. Knowing the ethylene production and sensitivity of fresh fruits and vegetables is essential to running a waste-free kitchen, as is knowing the airflow-needs of produce.

It’s also important to understand the temperature regions of your fridge. Generally, top shelves and doors are warmer, while lower areas and the back of the fridge are cooler. Drawers – like the crisper – are cool and retain humidity, and some even have a piece that can be adjusted to let moisture out or trap it in. Label these sections to more consciously store produce and prevent spoilage.

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To prevent apples from getting mealy, store them in the refrigerator. Keep other produce away from this high-ethylene-producing fruit to protect them from premature decay or stow all the apples in a bag. If you’re really dedicated, wrap each apple in reusable beeswax paper to prevent one rotting fruit from spoiling the bunch.

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These fruits are notoriously finicky and require a well-trained hand to determine ripeness by the touch.

Store avocados in a cool area of the kitchen and, if you’re not quite ready to use them when they’ve fully ripened, transfer to the refrigerator. Refrain, however, from putting the fruit in the fridge too early; the cold can halt the ripening process, leaving you with a hard avocado that ends up in the compost.

Preventing cut avocados from browning will also cut down on food waste in the kitchen. Store halved avocados in a container with an onion, or rub the exposed flesh with lemon juice, which prevents the fruit from oxidizing and turning brown.

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Bananas release high levels of ethylene gas, so it’s best to store them alone on the counter, preferably hanging from a banana hook where they aren’t putting pressure on one another. Once they’re ripe, bananas can be moved to the fridge for a couple of days until you’re ready to eat them, but don’t move the fruit before they’re ripe. Buying a bunch that’s still a little green is a good way to ensure that you’re not stuck with a bunch of overripe fruit too quickly.

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Bell Peppers

To prevent bell peppers from getting wrinkly and soft, keep them in the fridge, where they’ll last 1-2 weeks if separated from ethylene-gas-producing fruits.

Peppers go bad quickly when too moist, so be sure to dry them off before storing, and don’t wash until you’re ready to use them.

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Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries should be refrigerated in a sealed container with a little airflow, lined with towels to prevent buildup of moisture. Keep the lid slightly ajar or use a container with holes in it.

Berries will spoil quickly when moist, so don’t wash before storing, although strawberries will last longer if rinsed in a vinegar-water solution and thoroughly dried before chilling. Keep strawberry caps on, too, until it’s time to eat the fruit.

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This winter vegetable can handle cold temperatures; keep whole heads of broccoli in the cool crisper drawer, wrapped in a damp towel to stay fresh. To prevent mold, never leave the florets in a reusable silicone bag or wash them before storing. Even when stored properly, broccoli generally doesn’t keep very long, so be sure to use within a few days of purchasing.

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Carrots and Celery

Keep cut carrots and celery submerged in a jar of water, where they will last for two weeks and a month respectively.

Whole carrots are pretty hardy and can last in the fridge on their own for a while; celery, however, likes to be wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator, but keeping it in plastic wrap will accelerate the process of decay.

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Although similar in appearance to broccoli, cauliflower doesn’t like much moisture and needs some air circulation to stay fresh. Keep the vegetable in a perforated bag with the head-side up so moisture doesn’t accumulate and cause rotting. Refraining from washing cauliflower before storing will also help prevent decay.

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There are different theories about storing citrus: Some recommend more moisture, while others warn against it.

Generally, it’s advised to keep lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, grapefruits and other citrus fruits at room temperature until they hit peak ripeness (about a week), at which point they should be put in the fridge.

Alternatively, place them in the fridge right after purchasing until you’re ready to eat them, then move to the countertop. Most citruses aren’t ethylene-sensitive and can be stored with ethylene-producing things; lemons and limes, however, are sensitive, and should separated.

Evidence shows that citrus does like moisture, unlike many fruits. Some say that submerging lemons in water in the refrigerator will keep them fresh for weeks, as will storing them in a reusable silicone bag to keep humidity in. If you do keep citruses out of the refrigerator, take care not to pile the fruits on top of each other, which might lead to mold growth.

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The trick to storing corn is to keep it from drying out. Don’t expose the kernels, and don’t shuck it until you’re ready to eat it. Store the ears still in their husks in a reusable silicone bag in the crisper drawer until then.

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The flavor of cucumbers is impacted by cold temperatures and are thus best left on the counter. If you do want to extend their life by refrigerating, wrap them in a towel to keep dry and put in a reusable, cloth grocery bag for ventilation. Don’t wash the cucumbers before storing and keep them toward the front of the fridge on a higher shelf to keep them from getting too cold.

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Keep eggplants at room-temperature (not the refrigerator!) to maintain flavor and texture, although you’ll need to eat them within a few days. Ideally, choose a dark, dry, cool place with good circulation, but if you do leave eggplants on the counter, just keep them away from ethylene producers like bananas and tomatoes.

If you need the vegetable to last longer, wrap it in a towel, place in a hard-sided container to prevent bruising, and store in a fridge drawer. The flavor and texture of the nightshade, however, might be affected.

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While more convenient for snacking, don’t rinse grapes before cooling in the fridge; keep them dry and they’ll last up to a week. Grapes get wrinkly when left out, but they’ll thrive in a cold part of the fridge, like the back of the crisper drawer with its high humidity. Store in a bowl, colander or container with holes to facilitate proper airflow.

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Green Onions & Scallions

Green onions are not only easy to store, but easy to regrow at home.

Place the onions with the root-side down in a jar of water and place on the windowsill, where they will continue growing. Chop off the green tops for cooking and place the bulbs back in the jar to get a second growth of greenery. The onions can also be stored this way in the fridge with their tops covered or laid flat with the roots wrapped in a damp towel.

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Not all herbs are created equal in storage; there are different methods for keeping soft- and hard-stemmed herbs fresh in the fridge.

For soft-stemmed herbs like mint, basil, parsley, dill, tarragon and cilantro, place the stems in a jar with a few inches of water and put in the fridge. Rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, chives and other hard-stemmed herbs should be wrapped in a damp towel and stored in a sealed container in the crisper drawer.

Alternatively, if you find yourself with more herbs than you’ll be able to use before they begin to wilt, wash and dry the leaves, mix with olive oil, and store in the freezer in an ice cube tray. Pop out a cube and toss into a hot pan before sautéing vegetables or making a pasta sauce.

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There are a few competing theories about how to best store kale in the fridge, but generally, it’s recommended to wrap leaves in a towel to catch excess moisture and place the whole bunch in a reusable silicone bag. If you want to prep the leaves for use beforehand, remove the stems, wash, dry and place in the bag with a towel. Some chefs advocate for wrapping kale in a damp towel to keep the leaves crisp, but they’ll need to be used sooner.

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Always store melons out of the fridge when they’re whole and uncut; once sliced, cover or place in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

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With their high-water content, mushrooms have a tendency to get slimy when exposed to too much moisture. Keep them in a paper bag in the refrigerator, adding a towel to catch some extra moisture if you won’t get to them for a few days, although it’s best to eat most mushrooms within a week to 10 days.

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Onions and Garlic

Onions and garlic can be stored together but should be kept away from moisture in a low-humidity environment. Both like good air circulation, so a basket or mesh or paper bag is preferable for storage. Onions especially like a cool, dark place, like a closet or basement storage room, where they can last for months. Garlic can be left on a kitchen counter in a breathable container, but shouldn’t be kept in the fridge, where it’ll lose some of its flavor.

Once cut, store onions in the fridge wrapped in beeswax wrap.

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Like nectarines and apricots, peaches shouldn’t be kept in the fridge, which sucks their moisture, leaving you with a less-satisfying fruit. Keep them in a cool area of the kitchen, making sure they’re not stacked up on one another, which will lead to bruising.

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Pears are very similar to avocados and shouldn’t be put in the refrigerator until fully ripened, or they’ll stay hard. You can even use the same methods for preventing the oxidation of cut pears by rubbing a bit of lemon juice on the exposed areas.

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Potatoes and sweet potatoes

While potatoes should be stored similarly to onions, keep these two vegetables away from each other, for the gases emitted by onions will cause sprouting in the potatoes. Keep potatoes and yams in a dark, cool place, like a root (or wine) cellar, cabinet, closet or drawer; the cold temperatures of a fridge will convert some of the potato’s starches to sugars, causing them to brown sooner and burn faster when fried. Leaving the potatoes in plastic bags also promotes spoilage, so keep them in a basket or other open container.

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Salad Greens

Wrap salad greens in a light, reusable dish towel or napkin to soak up water and keep leaves from getting soggy. To prevent excess moisture, don’t wash the greens until you’re ready to use them. If a whole head of lettuce is looking a little wilted, chop a bit off of the bottom and place in a shallow bowl of water to revive it. Alternatively, remove all of the leaves from the head, dry them and store in an airtight container in the fridge.

To revive limp greens, submerge them in a bowl of very cold water before eating.

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Stone Fruits

Cherries and plums need to be kept as cold as possible. Store near the back of the refrigerator on a low shelf or in the crisper drawer.

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Summer Squash

Summer squashes like zucchini are similar to cucumbers but prefer the fridge to the countertop. These squashes are best kept in a reusable plastic bag in the crisper drawer but try not to chill the vegetables at temperatures any lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which might cause chilling injuries.

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Whatever you do, keep tomatoes out of the refrigerator.

Store fresh tomatoes upside down in open, flat container at room temperature and out of direct sunlight. If they’re very ripe, move the fruit to the refrigerator until ready to use. The same method applies to grape and cherry tomatoes, which should be kept in bowl on the counter.

Tomatoes give off ethylene gas, so keep them away from other fruits and vegetables.

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Tubers and Roots

Carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips, ginger and other roots and tubers are pretty easy to store. They don’t produce much ethylene and can be kept in the crisper drawer next to other vegetables. If they have greens (like carrots), chop those off before storing, as they pull moisture from the vegetable.

Some, like radishes, will regain their crunch if soaked in ice water before eating.

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Winter Squash

Winter squashes – butternut, acorn, kabocha, delicata, spaghetti, hubbard, etc. – should be kept out of the refrigerator and can last on the countertop for weeks or months. If you need only part of the squash for a recipe, peel and chop the squash and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

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