Storing fruits and vegetables, as well as herbs, has always been a challenge for me. So I decided to search for answers.
I wanted to learn the best methods for storing fruits and vegetables to extend their shelf life. There are ways to preserve such foods like dehydrating, canning, drying, freezing, and other long term solutions. But I wanted ways to store the fresh ingredients I use everyday so that they would last a few weeks without a need for a more labor intensive preservation effort.
So I turned to the wisdom of the web, a few key books, and the smarter people I surround myself with for some answers.
My goal was to discover effective ways to store the fruits and vegetables that I buy at the grocers or farmers’ market or harvest from my own garden.
Here are the techniques I’ve tested and the ones I’ve found work best for me. Though your results may vary, I think you’ll find these food saving tips helpful.
I use basil almost daily in our house but the containers that I buy from the local grocer or the generous bunches I get from the farmer’s market are more than I can use before it goes bad. I know what you’re thinking “Why not make pesto or something else that can be done using a bulk of basil” and you’re right. That would be one solution. But my curiosity lies in understanding why basil has such a short shelf life and I wanted to find a way to extend that timeframe.
I trimmed the ends and placed the stems in a mason jar with water. I wrapped the bunch in a paper towel, placed into a resealable plastic bag, and stored in the refrigerator. I even placed the entire package, as it was in the store, on the counter in a cool shaded section of the kitchen.
My results were varied and all left me wanting a better solution for storing basil.
The best way to store basil
The one method for storing basil that exceeded all others is actually a combination approach.
- Trim the ends of the stems and place the bunch in a mason jar with a few inches of water.
- Cover the entire jar, basil and all, with a large resealable plastic bag.
I’ve been using this technique for a few years now and I can consistently store basil for as long as 12 days. It might last longer but I cook with it so much that a large bunch gets used up before it goes bad and that’s exactly what I wanted.
The humidity stays higher using the bag as cover but the harmful ethylene gases released by the plant can escape. Just be sure to change the water every few days.
I love garlic almost anyway I can get it. The taste of roasted garlic is near the top of my favorite tastes list. But I can’t tell you how many times I discover the little green sprout poking out of a clove before I’ve made it halfway through a bulb. Now, sprouted garlic is safe to eat but those green little shoots emerging from the center can be bitter. It takes a little extra effort to cut the cloves in half and remove the green shoots. And as the garlic ages its heat level rises, so I want to avoid that as long as I can.
I tried storing garlic in brown paper bags with the top open or breathing holes in the sides. Monica at The Yummy Life has had great success with that technique and even uses it for onions and shallots. I stored fresh garlic in containers in the pantry. And despite some reports that storing garlic in the refrigerator is a bad idea, I did that too.
The best way to store garlic
For 24 months now I have experimented with different ways to store garlic and the best results for me, hands down, is from storing the untouched garlic bulbs in the refrigerator. There’s no special technique, I just place them on the top shelf where we keep the homemade jams and jellies. But it’s important to start with garlic bulbs that are as protected as possible by the outer paper. Try to buy bulbs that are intact without any missing cloves as that will shorten the shelf life.
I don’t have an upper limit for how long it will keep. I have been buying 2-3 garlic bulbs at a time and manage to use them before I’ve noticed any changes. But I can say that they keep perfectly in the refrigerator for at least a month without any noticeable changes.
The paper bag technique also worked well but the bulbs did start to sprout within the first few weeks.
That said, I am now buying 3 bulbs of garlic at a time. Two go onto the top shelf of the refrigerator and the other in a vented paper bag. This system seems to work just fine for me.
Garlic, like other living foods, continues to develop with time. As the bulbs dehydrate naturally the flavor becomes more intense and the flavor develops more of that spiciness that defines some garlic varieties. I prefer the milder ones so discouraging that change is the goal.
Exploring the science of garlic I discovered this site by Bob Anderson. He and his wife live on a farm in Texas where they grow garlic. He’s a wealth of knowledge and has a real passion for the subject. Though he’s not a chemist or scientist of any kind, he’s the type of person that jumps down the rabbit hole looking for answers. We appreciate that a whole bunch at Modern Steader.
Do you know what’s amazing? A perfectly ripened tomato. Do you know what’s not amazing? That same tomato as a squishy mess two days later if you’ve stored it incorrectly. Sad to say, that’s happened to me far too many times.
The bottom line is that tomatoes should be enjoyed soon after you pick them. Storing tomatoes may buy you a few more days but the goal is still to use them as soon as possible.
I want to be ready when I walk into the store or turn the corner at the farmer’s market and see beautiful tomatoes at a killer price. I need the knowledge, and confidence, to buy those tomatoes and know that it won’t be wasted money.
Refrigerator shelf, the crisper drawer, the countertop, the pantry, in a paper bag on the counter. I’ve placed fresh tomatoes everywhere. What I knew to start was that direct sun and heat were bad.
The best way to store tomatoes
Well, it’s not the fridge. Maters, as my kids call them, seem to change their texture and show bruising very quickly in the cold environment. The cold also drains the wonderful flavor from a perfectly ripened tomato.
The countertop, out of the reach of direct sun or heat sources, is the optimal place to store tomatoes. I have a large decorative bowl that sits on the counter and for years has been the staging area for any fruits or vegetables that didn’t make it into the refrigerator.
Now that bowl is lined with a few paper towels to absorb any moisture and the fresh tomatoes are spaced evenly inside. I try not to pack it so tightly that they touch because it might lead to bruising and an early demise.
One last tip to help you store tomatoes that will last you a few days or even a week is to consider buying tomatoes at various stages of the ripening process. The ones that are perfectly ripened can be used first and the others will naturally ripen as the week moves on and should produce perfect tomatoes for later in the week.
The science to unveil the best way to store tomatoes is fuzzy at best based on my research. There are several factors at work that could contribute to the over-ripening or even rotting of once perfectly ripened tomatoes.
This article tackles a few of the possibilities and also agrees that storing tomatoes on the counter is the best bet. But one thing is certain, tomatoes have a relatively short shelf life if you’re interested in eating them at their peak flavor and ripeness. So our advice, eat them as soon as you can.
Can herbs play dead like an opossum? It seems that cilantro does that everytime I buy it. In the store it’s perky, fragrant, and ready for use. But the 5 minute commute seems to trigger a defensive response.
The cilantro quickly goes limp, the leaves lose integrity, and that one-of-a-kind fragrance all but disappears. What in the hell just happened? Does it know it’s about to become a player in a dish that I will most certainly proclaim is the “best <whatever> I’ve ever made”!
Cilantro is my nemesis. I’ve tried to keep it fresh in a mason jar of water. I’ve wrapped it in paper towels and stored it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. I’ve trimmed the ends, placed the bunch in a mason jar of water and stored it in the refrigerator.
The best way to store cilantro
Trimming the ends and storing cilantro in a mason jar of water provided very little hope. Within a few days the entire bunch was lost. But using the same approach that worked for basil, I tented the jar of freshly trimmed cilantro and had much better success. Then I found this article and knew I found my answer.
The best way to store cilantro is in a mason jar containing a few inches of water, covered with a plastic bag, and placed in the refrigerator. Much like the basil, I can now buy 2 bunches of fresh cilantro from our flagship Edible Learning Lab here in Buffalo, WY and use it all before it turns on me. So far, I’ve kept cilantro fresh using this technique for 2 weeks with no problems.
Cilantro, like other delicate green herbs including basil, benefit from the humidity and cold temps provided by placing the bunch in a mason jar with water in the refrigerator and a plastic bag to cover. The humidity prolongs the life of the leaves and still allows the gases to escape.
Like cilantro, potatoes seem to follow a similar path. I buy them, take them home and store them in the pantry, and pull them out a day or two later to discover eyes. Eyes everywhere.
Potatoes can be purchased in bulk and should be stored to last. They are versatile and have been a staple for generations. Certainly my ancestors knew how to store them properly but I must have been fooling around when my Dad covered that topic.
Potatoes always seem to sprout eyes in our house. The pantry was too warm despite using a paper bag to shield the spuds from light. The refrigerator is always a no-no. The cold environment often has too much humidity and it causes the starches to convert to sugar. The counter top is too bright, too hot, and spawns eyes in just a few days.
The best way to store potatoes
The best results in our house is to store potatoes in a brown paper bag in the garage. It may not be the sexiest solution but Wyoming winters aren’t as harsh as many think. The temperature and humidity in our garage hovers around 45°F most winter days and shares two walls with heated portions of the house. We can now buy potatoes in bulk and store them for 6-8 weeks throughout the fall and winter.
Potatoes store best at 45°-50°F with low humidity. Increases in temperature or humidity can trigger the sprouting process and lead to those pesky eyes. Light is also detrimental to long storage. Light is responsible for that green tint that you often see on potatoes in the store. The green is caused by a build up of Solanine in the potato spurred by excess exposure to light.
I love baby greens more than the mature version of any salad green. They’re tender and full of flavor. But keeping them fresh is a challenge. The crisper drawer can spell doom for them. I like to buy a large variety of greens from the Edible Learning Lab and make my own mixes. This provides me with a large volume of greens and it’s imperative to store them correctly or risk losing them.
Over the years, I suspect that I’ve tried a dozen methods for storing greens. I’ve placed them in airtight containers. Using a straw, I’ve sucked out all the air from a resealable plastic bag. I’ve used commercial green bags. I’ve even washed them and placed the entire salad spinner in the refrigerator.
The best way to store baby greens
Prep them by washing and soaking in cold water, drying completely with a salad spinner or towel, and then ripping the greens into bite size pieces (only do this step if you plan to eat them in the next 24 hours). Place the dry greens in a large resealable plastic bag along with a dry paper towel and squeeze out as much air as possible without damaging the greens. Using a needle, poke 10-20 holes in the bag and place in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. You can learn more about micro-perforated bags in this Modern Steader article.
Greens are particular about the conditions they desire. The are impacted by ethylene gas given off by other fruits and vegetables which can cause them to spoil more quickly. They prefer high humidity as they tend to lose water quickly. Greens will freeze at 31.6°F and last longer at 32°F than at 40°F so the optimal range is rather narrow.
Carrots are a key ingredient in our daily green juice but there is nothing more disappointing than a 5 lb bag of limp carrots. You know exactly what I’m talking about.
Storing carrots and the other green juice ingredients properly would give me the freedom to shop every few days but still enjoy nutritious juice daily. Here in Buffalo, WY we have access to a few farmers that grow a nice assortment of vegetables, including carrots, and the Edible Learning Lab grows specialty carrots from time to time. Determining the best method for long-term storage of carrots is a big win.
Store bought carrots usually come in bags and I’ve stored them just as they come in the crisper drawer. I’ve placed carrots in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator. I’ve also experimented with a few techniques that include using water for proper long-term storage.
The best way to store carrots
Hands down, the best way to store carrots is to cut the greens from the top and place them in a glass or plastic storage container, add filtered water, and cover with plastic or a lid. Change the water twice a week and the carrots will keep for up to a month.
Carrots will ripen quickly if they are placed near apples, pears, or other foods that emit ethylene gas. As the roots lose moisture they become limp and may display discoloration at the root tip. Submerging carrots in water minimizes the moisture loss that causes the degradation.
Celery presents the same challenge as the carrots do. One day the stalks are firm and the next they’re as limp as the amatuer magicians trick magic wand. I knew there had to be a way to properly store celery to extend the life in the refrigerator so that I could buy enough for a few days of juicing without wasting it.
I wrapped the stalks in paper towels and stored them plastic bags as well as containers. I placed them in a glass with a few inches of water. I even completely submerged them in filtered water just as we do with carrots.
The best way to store celery
Micro-perforated bags just might be a force as equal in influence as gravity itself. Ok, that is clearly a stretch, but they are magic makers in the kitchen. Trim the ends of the stocks, wrap in a layer or two of dry paper towels, and seal in a micro-perforated bag. Place the bag in the refrigerator, either on a shelf or in the crisper drawer.
The cells in the celery stalk lose moisture and thus become flaccid. Rigidity is maintained in an environment where moisture loss is minimized. Using the paper towel as a barrier to moisture loss and the micro-perforated bag which is vented for ethylene gas to escape is the perfect defense against limp celery. The crisper drawer is designed to maintain proper moisture even when the refrigerator door is open and closed frequently.
Lemons & Limes
Limes seem to turn quickly. They lose moisture and you can see the ribs become more pronounced as the fruit shrinks in size. They harden and lose that fresh zing that defines their peak flavor. The same is true for lemons.
Certainly there must be a technique for storing lemons and limes that would preserve that peak flavor for more than just a few days.
I tested them on the counter, in a brown bag in the pantry, in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator, loose in the fridge, and in the refrigerator in a micro-perforated bag.
The best way to store potatoes
Are you ready? If you’ve read all the way down to this last section then it won’t surprise you that the best method involves micro-perforated bags. Bam!
Place the lemons in a micro-perforated bag, seal, and place in the crisper drawer. They will last for a month or longer with little to no moisture loss. How do you like them apples, err…lemons!
America’s Test Kitchen, that crew of kitchen ninjas, set out to prove the best method for storing lemons and limes. They even partially filled the resealable plastic bag with water to prevent moisture loss. As it turns out, the bag itself is enough to get the job done. Time catches up to all of us, even the citrus. Moisture loss leads to the inevitable end.