keeping fresh food fresh

First some good news: Americans have made some major progress when it comes to dealing with our garbage. Disposal of waste to landfill (as a percentage of total waste) has plummeted dramatically, and in 2008, we recycled and composted 83 million tons of municipal solid waste. This diversion rate represents a reduction in carbon emissions on par with taking about 33 million passenger vehicles off the road for a year!

Now on to the more sobering news: We’re still throwing away far too much stuff, more than ever actually. The next step for America is to reduce TOTAL waste.

In our home environments, one of the most dramatic ways to accomplish this is (a) to purchase more fresh foods and fewer packaged foods; and (b) to store fresh foods properly and use them promptly. Added bonus: making changes in this area will also expand your culinary pleasure and improve your health!

The following is a simple guide to storing fresh fruits and vegetables properly, with an eye to optimizing taste as well as reducing food waste.

To begin with, do you know why fruits and vegetables spoil? Most living foods have what we think of as an “edible” phase, which is followed by what we think of as a “rotting” phase. In nature, the purpose of that rotting phase is to naturally transform the plant material into compost to nourish the soil for the next generation of crops. This phase is triggered by a naturally-occurring plant enzyme called ethylene. Understanding the workings of ethylene is the key to understanding food freshness.

Use Bags That Absorb Ethylene

One of the most significant things you can do to extend the edible phase of virtually all fruits and vegetables is to stop using regular plastic bags to store your produce, and start using bags which absorb ethylene. These “green bags” are all natural, environmentally friendly, and can be reused for six months to a year before they start to lose their effectiveness. Bring them with you to the farmer’s market, load your fruits and veggies directly into these bags; you will be amazed at how much longer your produce lasts and how much better it tastes. (Added bonus: no more plastic bags to throw into landfill.)

Use Separate Bags for Each Type of Food

When you are only buying a few items, it can be tempting to throw an apple, a carrot and a bunch of parsley into the same bag, but this is a bad idea unless you are planning to consume everything as soon as you get home. Some foods emit more ethylene than others, and the high-emitting foods will cause the other foods in the bag to spoil more quickly. Bell peppers, for example, emit quite a large amount of ethylene compared to other foods. If you put a bell pepper into a bag with some lettuce, the rotting cycle of the lettuce will escalate dramatically compared to a bag of lettuce stored alone. Generally fruits generate more ethylene than vegetables.

One Bad Apple Really Does Spoil the Bunch

As a food begins to rot, it produces more and more ethylene. So if you have one apple that’s starting to rot, it will start pouring ethylene into the bag, triggering the natural rotting cycles of the other apples to escalate as well. Immediately compost anything which has started to turn and you will extend the life of the remaining items.

A Note About Sub-Zero Refrigerators

Sub-Zero is constantly refining their specialized technology that helps to keep produce fresh longer. It’s not a mere marketing claim; Sub-Zeros really do work better than other brands. However, they are vastly more expensive than other refrigerators, and often less energy-efficient.  In my opinion, the only good reason to purchase a Sub-Zero is because you like the way it looks, and/or you live in an upscale neighborhood where high-end appliances may be an asset at resale. I’ve specified Sub-Zero on a number of projects because their products are taller and more stately than most other refrigerators, and they have a number of interesting design options. If one of your major goals is to create a luxurious cooking experience, a Sub-Zero may make sense from an aesthetic and tactile point of view. Just keep in mind that you are essentially buying a nice piece of furniture, as the technology itself will not markedly improve the taste of your food. The best way to do that is to buy high quality ingredients and store them for the shortest time possible.

Refrigerator or Countertop?

To ensure optimal taste and freshness, some fruits and vegetables should be stored in the refrigerator, whereas others should be stored on the countertop (out of direct sunlight). Below is a simple guide to which is which:

Store in Refrigerator – all berries, apricots, cherries, figs, grapes, Asian pears, artichokes, asparagus, green beans, lima beans, beets, Belgian endive, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, green onions, herbs other  than basil, leafy vegetables, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, peas, radishes, spinach, sprouts, summer squashes, corn, all cut fruits and vegetables.

Store on Countertop – bananas, all citrus, mangoes, muskmelons, papayas, persimmons, whole pineapple, plantain, pomegranates, watermelons, dry onions, garlic, ginger, jicama, potatoes, pumpkins, winter squashes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, basil (with stems in a glass of water).

Either or both – cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and apples (store apples in refrigerator when keeping for more than seven days). Some fruits are best ripened on counter and best stored in the refrigerator once they are ripe – these include avocadoes, kiwis, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, plumcots.

A Bit of Grace

Fresh foods do go bad more quickly than packaged, canned or frozen foods, and it’s impossible to stay ahead of that all the time. You are going to lose some, and that’s fine. There are so many benefits to cooking and eating fresh foods that it is worth the risk! Do keep in mind that composting some spoiled lettuce is a lot better for the environment than throwing a plastic container into the trash. So just do what you can, and don’t worry too much when a few things spoil… as they inevitably will.

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Siddhartha Gautama

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