Every Saturday morning, I go shopping at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmer’s market, and I always go home with a dizzying array of colorful peppers, perfect peaches, gorgeous greens, and a host of other things I can’t wait to cook over the course of the week. Sure enough though, by Wednesday afternoon, my kitchen is always covered with greenish, mushy lumps formerly known as my dinner. I toss the wilted, moldy masses in the compost bin and sigh, “Well, there’s another ten bucks down the drain.”
Cooking with fresh produce is satisfying, whether it’s from a farmer’s market or a neighborhood grocery store, but trying to use it all before it goes bad can drive a person crazy. It seems that so many things I buy end up going bad before I have a chance to use them, and that’s money right down the drain. Making everything last through the week doesn’t take superhuman feats of kale coddling; it just takes more commonsense shopping habits and more efficient storage techniques.
Veggies, Veggies Everywhere … But What to Do with Them?
One of the greatest temptations of the market is just to buy whatever looks tasty, but what’s a shopper to do when everything looks good? With every vendor offering samples and freebies to entice you to buy, it’s not hard to go home with a random assortment of vegetables without any plan or timeline for how to utilize them. One of the best things to do to minimize produce waste is to come up with a meal plan—and stick to it. Knowing what you’d like to cook keeps you on track to buy only the things you need, and not just the things that sound good now.
Once you have a rough idea of your meals, arrange them so that the most perishable items get used right away, and let sturdier veggies wait until the end of the week. Cook leafy greens, corn in the husk, and fresh herbs right away. Potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, leeks, garlic, broccoli, and bell peppers can last longer without going bad. Thin-skinned fruits like peaches, plums, or apricots often only last a few days, but fruits with a rind or husk like pomegranates, citrus fruits, and avocados are hardier. When buying meat, pay attention to how it’s packaged to determine how long it will keep. Any meat (especially seafood) that’s wrapped in plain paper from a deli counter or that arrives in a baggie should be used within a day or two. Vacuum-sealed products will last longer, usually up to a week.
Having a meal plan also helps you to know how ripe your produce needs to be throughout the week. Only buy ripe produce for meals you’ll cook within a day or two of shopping. For subsequent meals, buy vegetables that are still slightly green or a bit firm. For example, don’t buy perfectly ripe avocados on Monday if you’re planning to make guacamole on Saturday. Buy under-ripe ones and allow them to mature at home. Although it’s tempting to buy only the most perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables, buying items that haven’t reached their peak can minimize waste.
Cool It with the Refrigerator
Once you get your vegetables home, how you store them has a huge effect on their longevity. Grocery stores minimize food loss by keeping their items perfectly preserved until purchase, and some of their techniques can be replicated at home. As long as you don’t live in a hot or arid climate, most produce should be stored at room temperature, not in the refrigerator. Storing food in the refrigerator stops the ripening process, and can damage its flavor and texture. Keep the majority of produce out on the kitchen counter, away from light and heat, and never store food in a sealed bag—make sure that plastic bags are perforated, or better yet, keep produce in ventilated bowls or in brown paper bags. Sealing food in bags can cause food to rot because of the carbon dioxide buildup in the bag.
In addition, fruit produces ethylene gas, which speeds ripening, so separate fruits from vegetables to prevent the fruit from causing a chemical reaction that makes the veggies rot more quickly. Apples are the main producers of ethylene (with the exception of Granny Smith and Fuji varieties), but all fruit produces the gas in some quantity. Tomatoes, mushrooms, and potatoes should always remain on the counter in a bowl or brown paper bag, and onions and garlic should be stored in the open, to allow ventilation and prevent rotting.
Fruit can start out on the counter, but once ripe, moving it into the refrigerator will keep it at its peak for a few more days. Avocadoes, peaches, plums, pluots, and pears can ripen on their own before being refrigerated. Some experts recommend refrigerating apples right away, to keep them from becoming mealy or ripening too fast.
Some vegetables can tolerate the refrigerator right from the start, as long as the temperature is between 32 and 36° F. The “crisper” drawer is intended to be the most humid place of the refrigerator, which vegetables love. If your crisper allows for humidity control, make sure it’s set for about 95 percent, and keep carrots, celery, herbs like basil or dill, and lettuce in the drawer. Cut the green stems off carrots or other root vegetables right away, because they can leach moisture. Lettuce is one of the few foods that can be washed before storage. Rinse it in cold water and store tightly wrapped in a plastic bag.
For most other perishable foods, don’t wash until right before you use them, because extra moisture on fruits and vegetables can cause them to rot more quickly. If your crisper has no humidity control or doesn’t provide enough moisture, feel free to take out the drawers and use the extra space for other products, and when you need to store vegetables, just keep them on one of the top shelves, which are usually a bit warmer and moister than the rest of the refrigerator. Wilted or wrinkly vegetables are usually a sign of deficient humidity, and discoloration and browning are usually a sign of chill damage, so adjust your refrigerator accordingly.
In a perfect world, we’d all have the money and time to browse through the market, leisurely planning the day’s meal. In reality, most of us have to stock up for the week, risking that some items won’t survive to be enjoyed. Better planning and better storage can maximize the amount of fresh foods that we eat, while minimizing the amount of food (and money) we toss away.