I foresee a moment in the future when there will be a major power outage, leaving us in the dark for hours or even days at a time. Everyone is susceptible to long-term outages even if a solar panel is connected to the house. A natural disaster or problem in the city’s electrical system can be enough to sever the power lines for some time. Meanwhile, anything you have stored in the fridge will become subject to quick spoilage unless you’re prepared in advance to make it last.
For starters, here’s a fun fact. The first system of refrigeration was invented in the early 1800’s but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that refrigerators became a household appliance. That means that during the thousands of years prior to the 1900’s, people didn’t have the means of keeping their food cold or frozen. Fast forward to today, you will find it completely odd to walk into a home without a fridge. But is it as indispensable as we have made it to be?
Many people store just about any edible thing in the fridge but I’m sure most of those things can do well, or even better, in a warmer environment. In this day and age refrigerators are a preferred appliance to preserve meats and cooked foods. On the other hand, it is indeed a luxury to own one and many people around the world survive just fine without it.
With that said, remember that fruits and vegetables have been around since the creation of this world. Way before refrigeration methods were created, people knew of ways to preserve their produce and keep it from spoiling quickly. Perhaps it has become a lost art but it’s in our best interest to learn how to preserve our produce in times when modern methods are unavailable or inefficient.
Why does produce go bad so quickly?
A little science can help us understand the spoilage process of our produce. Our vegetables and fruits are living organisms even after they’re cut off from the plant or tree. All vegetables and fruits have a unique chemical compound which causes them to interact differently with the environment they’re placed in.
There are a combination of factors that can influence produce to spoil quickly. Understanding these factors can give us insight into keeping them in their optimum state for as long as possible, especially when refrigeration is not an option. Keeping produce as fresh as possible is also vital to maintaining the maximum amount of nutrients they provide.
Some produce will start to dry out when exposed to oxygen for long periods of time. Fruits and vegetables will react differently as they begin to lose moisture from stagnant air exposure. You will notice the skin of apples and cucumbers start to wrinkle. Oranges and limes will shrink in size and harden. Leafy greens, such as lettuce, will become wilted and limp.
Fruits and veggies are rich in natural enzymes which provide our bodies with many health benefits. Enzymes become active when exposed to oxygen by cutting or peeling. In other words, they are inactive prior to the fruit or vegetable being harvested. Enzymes are sensitive to heat and will cause produce to spoil quickly unless refrigerated. They are almost inactive in cold and freezing temperatures, which is why fresh-cut produce lasts longer in the fridge. You will notice a chemical reaction start to occur when the produce is in the process of becoming spoiled due to oxygen exposure. This natural oxidation is called enzymatic browning and can be seen within minutes occurring in sliced apples and bananas.
OTHER CHEMICAL CHANGES:
High temperatures, direct sun exposure and oxygen work together to increase produce spoilage. To prevent rapid spoilage, keep fresh produce away from sunlit areas and store them in a cooler place in your kitchen. Any produce that has physical damage, such as natural cuts or bruises from harvesting, should be eaten first to prevent oxidation.
A QUICK NOTE ON MICROORGANISMS AND MICROBIAL SAFETY:
Mishandled produce, during before and after it’s harvested, can contain microorganisms which may cause contamination and illness. Often times these microorganisms (such as pathogenic bacteria, yeast or fungi) cannot be removed and the produce should be thrown out and not ingested. Keep in mind that any pathogens which are present in your fresh food (just like in meat) can multiply quickly if left at room temperature, showing quicker signs of spoilage, and are more likely to spread to other food nearby. This post is written with the consideration that the produce you have is safe to eat. To prevent food-borne illnesses, do not eat anything that you suspect might be rotten or contaminated.
All food has a spoilage limit. Don’t expect any preservation method to miraculously keep your produce fresh indefinitely. Remember fruits and veggies are living organisms and if you don’t eat them soon after they're harvested, they will continue their life cycle until they die. Make it a habit to eat all the produce you purchase or harvest at home within a week or two if possible. If your harvest is too large to eat in one week, learn how to preserve it by canning, dehydrating, or freezing.
Ethylene is a natural plant hormone in the form of gas that speeds up the ripening process when it comes into contact with with oxygen and carbon dioxide. Some fruits and vegetables release ethylene gas as they are becoming ripe. Other fruits and veggies are sensitive to ethylene, so it’s best to keep the ethylene-producing and ethylene-sensitive produce apart from each other to prevent premature spoilage.
MOISTURE OR WETNESS:
Humidity is good for your produce but too much moisture can cause your produce to rot. You don’t want your vegetables or fruits to be sitting in stagnant water. This often occurs after washing or when bringing produce home from the store. Have you ever noticed the excess amount of water that gets caught in store-bought leafy greens? To prevent this from causing rapid spoilage, put a paper towel in between the lettuce leaves. This will catch the extra moisture and preserve it for a longer time.
We’re used to connecting the idea of freshness to our refrigerator but remember this is just modern technology. Although technology has greatly advanced over the last hundred years, keep in mind that the fridge is not always your food’s best friend. Some fruits and vegetables lose their nutritional properties and spoil quicker when they sit in colder temperatures.
The following tips will teach you ways to store your fresh produce with the intent of maintaining the maximum amount of nutrients and longevity.
How can you keep your produce fresh?
1. Separate ethylene-producing and ethylene-sensitive fruits and veggies
The first thing to do is to learn how to store fruits and vegetables properly. Like before mentioned, some fruits and veggies emit ethylene gas and others are sensitive to it. It’s best to keep them apart from each other so that premature spoilage doesn’t occur.
- Avocados (ripe)
- Bananas (ripe)
- Kiwifruit (ripe)
- Passion Fruit
- Tomatoes (ripe)
- Bananas (unripe)
- Belgian Endive
- Bok Choy
- Brussel Sprouts
- Green Beans
- Green Peas
- Green Onions
- Leafy Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Passion Fruit
- Peppers (Hot Chili)
- Squash (Winter and Summer varieties)
- Sweet Potatoes
- Tomatoes (unripe)
These foods produce little to no ethylene and are either barely sensitive or not sensitive at all:
- Corn (sweet)
- Ginger root
- Peppers (Sweet)
2. Buy a VeggiDome
Last week I went to a convention in Denver, CO and among the many vendors I met someone who was selling the VeggiDome. I have never seen anything like it. I’m not receiving commission from advertising but I thought the idea was brilliant so I had to share it with you here.
Basically the dome is made of four pieces: the glass plate base, a metal colander base, a glass dome, and a glass lid. It works to keep your produce fresh on the kitchen counter or dining table so a fridge is not necessary. When you purchase your produce, you can wash it and put it in the dome right away. The glass plate will collect any excess water, the colander will separate the produce from the water so it doesn’t cause spoilage and the dome maintains the moisture needed so the plants don’t dry out or dehydrate. Finally, the lid sits loosely on the top to allow ethylene gas to escape. It’s great because it will allow the fruits and veggies to ripen at a slower pace and not spoil quickly. Produce is said to remain fresh inside the VeggiDome for up to a week but it all depends on the kind of produce that is put in there and whether or not it has been pre-cut. (Tip: Don’t store apples and bananas in the VeggiDome!) If you want to purchase one, check out their website here.
3. Make a DIY Veggie Jar
For those of you who want to make their own version of the VeggiDome, look no further than your local thrift store or kitchen merchandise store. You will need a glass jar and a flat mesh strainer or colander that fits through the opening of the lid. For the colander, you can use a tupperware lid and punch some holes through it.
Make sure that the lid that comes with your jar is not air-tight sealed. This is essential for allowing the ethylene gas to escape.
4. Don’t pre-cut your produce
Meal-prepping has become very popular especially among people who are trying to lose weight and to prevent reaching for unhealthy snacks. I am in favor of meal-prepping if you plan to eat it within the week. However, if you don't have a working fridge, it’s best to cut your produce only one day before you plan to eat it. Having large amounts of unrefrigerated pre-cut produce will cause it to spoil much faster.
5. Store your produce in their preferred temperature
Ever notice that not all of the produce at the store is refrigerated? That’s because some produce will spoil prematurely under cold temperatures. Tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants, for example, shouldn’t be refrigerated to begin with.
On the other hand, some fruits and veggies DO prefer colder temperatures. If you don’t have a working fridge, you should put these foods in a lower level of the house (perhaps a lower cupboard in the kitchen or pantry). Heat rises, so you want to keep them as close to the ground as possible where the temperature may be a few degrees cooler. Also, keep them in a dark place so the sunlight doesn’t cause the produce to get warmer.
Tip: If you do this, beware of lurking rodents and other pests.
Store your produce under their preferred temperature so they stay in their optimum state longer.
6. Don’t purchase produce that has been previously refrigerated
When produce is refrigerated right after harvesting, the flavor changes and the storage-ability reduces. Any fruit or vegetable that has previously been refrigerated will spoil faster if it's later left outside of the fridge.
7. Don’t harvest home-grown produce too early
Most of the produce you find at the grocery store is harvested too early so it can reach consumers before it ripens. It doesn’t need to be this way if you are growing food in your home garden. Don’t harvest your produce until you’re ready to eat it. If possible, pick it as you need it. Fruits and veggies ripen and taste better while they’re still on the vine, not when they’re harvested early.
If you have a large garden and you suspect the produce will go bad if you don’t harvest it, then pick it and find creative ways to preserve it before it goes bad.
8. Maintain proper humidity levels
Some produce prefer humid environments. Remember, humid does not mean wet.
9. Compost over-ripe produce
Have you heard of the saying, “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel”. This couldn’t be closer to the truth! Mold that has began growing on your produce spreads quickly to the clean and healthy produce sitting next to it. Keep all your blemish-free produce away from the ones that are over-ripe and showing signs of spoilage. Doing this may also help to get rid of some fruit flies that are drawn to ripening fruit.
10. Eat what rots quickest first
Some fruits and vegetables ripen quicker than others, such as berries versus apples. Eat the foods that will go bad first. This will give the other produce a little extra time to mature and ripen.
11. Do as our ancestors did
Our ancestors developed many ways of preserving food which are still common to us today. They had to make their food last for long months, especially during the winters and droughts. What they couldn’t eat fresh, they would pickle, ferment, dry in the sun or preserve in honey.
Freezing food for preservation purposes was an option for people who lived in cold climates. It was more common to use basements to keep things cool, rather than building makeshift freezers prior to the 1800’s. If you don’t have a working fridge after a natural disaster, you can do the same thing.
Quick guide on storing your fresh fruits and veggies
Taking everything you just read about into consideration, I have made a quick storing guide for you so that your produce can remain fresh for as long as possible.
These foods prefer to be stored at room temperature:
- AVOCADOS: It’s best to leave these on the counter. Once cut, store the leftovers in the fridge or a cool location. Only store whole avocados in the fridge if they’re overripe and you want to extend their shelf life a day or two.
- APPLES: Leave these in a fruit bowl away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- APRICOTS: Leave these in a fruit bowl away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- BANANAS: Leave these in a fruit bowl away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- BERRIES: Berries don’t last long to begin with but they spoil faster in cold environments. Leave them on the counter and eat them a day or two after harvesting/ purchasing. Wash them right before you plan to eat them, not sooner.
- CHERRIES: These prefer to be left at room temperature and don’t require refrigeration.
- CLEMENTINES: Leave these on the kitchen counter.
- CUCUMBERS: These store best at room temperature but are sensitive to ethylene. Keep them away from apples, tomatoes, and other ethylene-producing foods.
- EGGPLANT: Eggplant spoils quickly in cold temperatures. Leave it on the kitchen counter away from ethylene-producing foods.
- GARLIC: Store these in a paper bag and in a cool, dark location.
- HERBS (such as Basil, Cilantro, Mint, Parsley): A simple way to keep herbs from drying out is to cut the ends of the stems and put them in a glass filled with about one inch of water. Then, cover them with a bag (the one from the store works just fine) and leave them on the kitchen counter away from the sun. Putting herbs in the fridge will make them wilt faster.
- KIWIFRUIT: It’s best to leave kiwi on the counter or a fruit bowl. Once ripe, however, keep them away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- ORANGES: Leave these on the kitchen counter.
- ONIONS/ SHALLOTS: Store these in a paper bag. Once cut, put the leftovers in a lidded container in the fridge or cool location. Keep onions away from potatoes.
- LEAFY GREENS: Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and spinach will do well in the VeggiDome or your DIY version. Because moisture is maintained inside the dome, you don’t have to worry about them losing water and becoming wilted which is likely to occur if they’re left on the counter or the fridge.
- LEMONS: Leave these on the kitchen counter.
- LIMES: Leave these on the kitchen counter.
- MANGOES: Keep mangoes on the counter away from other fruits.
- MELONS: Leave whole melons on the counter. Once cut, store the leftovers in the fridge for up to four days.
- MUSHROOMS: Store homegrown mushrooms in a paper bag at room temperature. If you purchase mushrooms at the store, they are most likely pre-refrigerated. If that’s the case, put them in a paper bag and in the fridge.
- NECTARINES: Let them ripen at room temperature.
- TOMATOES: Let them ripen at room temperature away from ethylene-sensitive foods. Do not wash them until you’re ready to eat them.
- PEARS: Leave these in a fruit bowl away from ethylene-sensitive foods. If they’re too ripe, put them in the fridge to extend their shelf life by a few days.
- PEACHES: If you want them to ripen them quickly, put them in a paper bag for a couple days. If not, leave them in a fruit bowl away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- PEPPERS: Store these in a paper bag and in a dry and cool location.
- PINEAPPLE: Storing pineapples at room temperature will make them taste sweeter. A day or two before eating, turn them upside down to allow the sweet juices to flow throughout the entire fruit.
- PLUMS: If you want them to ripen them quickly, put them in a sealed paper bag for a couple days. If not, leave them in a fruit bowl away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- POTATOES: Store them in a paper bag or open basket. The plastic bag they usually come in will create moisture and cause them to spoil quickly. Keep potatoes away from onions in a dry and cool location.
- SWEET POTATOES: Store them in a paper bag and leave them in a dark and cool location.
- WINTER SQUASH: Leave these at room temperature in a cool and dry location. They should last a month or more if uncut.
These foods prefer colder environments (if possible, store them in the fridge or cooler)
- ASPARAGUS: Store the bunch upright in a glass of water.
- CARROTS: Carrots can be stored for a long time in the fridge. Remove them from the plastic bag to prevent moisture and mold.
- CELERY: Celery can also last a long time in cold temperatures. Wrap them in foil instead of the plastic bag.
- CRUCIFEROUS VEGGIES: Bok Choy, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage and Cauliflower last longer if stored in the fridge. They are very sensitive to ethylene, so keep them separate from ethylene-producing fruits and veggies.
- FIGS: Figs ripen very quickly and should be stored in the fridge. They produce a lot of ethylene gas and should be kept away from ethylene-sensitive foods.
- GINGER: Ginger is best stored in the fridge. Wrap the ginger root in a paper towel and then seal it in a baggie.
- GRAPES: Store these in the fridge and wash them only before you plan to eat them.
- SUMMER SQUASH: Store them in the fridge in tightly sealed bags.
What should you do if your produce goes bad?
I hope these tips help you maintain the ideal environment for your produce. Not only are fruits and vegetables indispensable for your health during emergencies but keeping them fresh is going to be very important when we don’t have the luxury to refrigerate and preserve them.
How have you kept your produce fresh when you were traveling or didn’t have a working fridge? Let me know in the comments below!
Share this Post
Did you like what you just read?
Sign up to receive blog updates straight to your inbox!