How to Store Any Vegetable to Keep It Fresh As Long As Possible
As a resident of New York City who does not own a car and calls a rickety little cabinet in my hallway my “pantry,” I’m accustomed to the type of grocery shopping that my parents have dubbed “European.” I usually shop a little very frequently, popping out to the corner grocery store to grab what I need every other day or so. This has the advantage of limiting the quantity of stuff I’m carrying, since again, no car, and also allows me to pivot to cook whatever I want, or whatever looks fresh. But these days, with coronavirus putting the city in lockdown and experts advising to take as few trips to places like grocery stores as you can, I’ve pivoted, hard, into the kind of shopping more folks outside of cities do. I make a big trip once a week and fill in the gaps by improvising with what I have.
Not only does that mean not running out for rosemary on a whim, it also has shifted my priorities to concentrating on using up the fragile, fresh produce I have quickly, and storing the rest as smartly as possible so it lasts. It’s a good way to make sure I’m not wasting food or money—and ensuring that the produce I buy stays edible as long as possible. Here is a guide to storing vegetables to keep them as fresh as you can, as long as you can.
Tender Salad Greens and Lettuces
Your tender fresh greens, like arugula, baby spinach, mesclun, spring mix, and so on, are the most fragile category of vegetable, so it’s best practice to eat them quickly once you have them, rather than let them sit around. It’s always disappointing to open up a plastic bag full of salad greens to find they have converted to a heap of slimy leaves and it seems to happen quickly if you just toss that bag into the fridge
The best time to extend the life of salad greens is as soon as you return from your grocery run (or receive your delivery). First, open the container the greens came in and sort through them. Any leaf that has started to turn mushy and brown should be rooted out and discarded. Second, prevent spoilage by adding paper towels or a clean dish towel to absorb the excess moisture in the bag. If the greens are in a clamshell container, line that container with dry paper towels or a clean dish towel before putting the greens back in. If they’re in a bag, you can simply fold up a paper towel, put it in the bag, and seal the bag with a clip. Use within a week
Some lettuces are going to be hardier than others. Lettuce that comes in a head, like romaine or iceberg, can keep up to a couple weeks in the fridge. To keep it fresh as long as you can, cut off the ends but otherwise leave it intact. Don’t wash those suckers until you’re ready to use them. Store them in a plastic bag with a paper towel stuffed inside. Put the bag in the crisper drawer. Also? Keep your lettuce away from fruits like apples, bananas, and avocados—they emit gases when they ripen that can hasten the demise of your lettuces.
Here I’m talking about kale, collard or mustard greens, bok choy, Swiss chard, full-grown mature spinach, and other greens that typically come in a bunch, rather than a clamshell or bag. Spinach, like our tender green friends, should be kept in a bag, bowl, or clamshell with a paper towel in the fridge. Other greens do best when you remove the rubber band or tie holding them together before you store them. Then wrap them in paper towels and put them in a resealable bag in the fridge. It’ll keep them good for at least a week, up to two.
If you’re not going to use your hardier greens within, say, ten days, you can also freeze them. The best way to do that with hardier greens is to give them a quick blanch first. Blanching does a couple useful things: it stops enzyme activities that can lead to the loss of flavor and texture, and it also cleans the leaves of any lurking dirt and organisms. Here’s how you do it: Wash the leaves thoroughly, trim away the woodier stems for greens like kale, where the stems can be fibrous and unpleasant to eat, and then dunk them in a pot of boiling water for one minute. Then use tongs or a spider to transfer them to a bowl of ice water for a brief dunk, dry them really thoroughly (a salad spinner works great here), and freeze them flat on a baking sheet, to keep the leaves separated and not have them all in a big clump. Or freeze them in a big clump—that works too. Once they’ve frozen completely, you can transfer them to a freezer bag and store in the freezer for six to eight months. You can put the frozen greens directly into soups, stews, or smoothies without defrosting them first.
Bell Peppers and Fresh Chiles
Bell peppers, whether green, red, orange, or yellow, keep for up to two weeks in the fridge with very little intervention. Just put them in a plastic bag, and put that in your crisper drawer. Same goes for hotter chile peppers, from habaneros to jalapeños. If you want to store them for longer, you can freeze peppers pretty easily. Wash them, slice them into whatever size you prefer, remove the seeds and membranes, and then freeze them flat on a baking sheet. Once they’re frozen through, you can put them in a freezer bag and stash them in the freezer for up to six months. Chiles can also be frozen sliced or whole, or you can preserve them by macerating them in citrus juice or vinegar to make pickled chiles.
If you’re getting your cucumbers from the store, you probably don’t have to wash them before you store them. But if you’re getting them from a farmer’s market or garden, wash and dry them thoroughly to get rid of any lingering dirt that might cling to them and hasten their demise. Then you have a few options. You can pop them in the fridge, wrapped in a paper towel or clean dishcloth, or you can keep them on your counter. If you got them in a plastic bag, open it and stick in a folded dry paper towel, to ward off moisture. Either way, keep them away from those off-gassing fruits I mentioned in the tender greens section, and eat them within five days. Alternatively, you can store them for longer by turning cucumbers into easy, spicy pickles.
If you’re looking for produce that will last you awhile, root vegetables are where it’s at. These include carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, radishes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, yams, and regular old potatoes. What’s great about these varieties is that, in many cases, you don’t even need to keep them in the fridge. If you have a cool, dry spot in your house, like a garage, cellar, or closet, where the temperature is consistently between 40 and 50 degrees, you can keep potatoes and sweet potatoes in a paper bag there for up to three months without them spoiling. Avoid damp, cool places, however—those mimic potato growing conditions, and will encourage them to sprout. Large potatoes tend to last longer than the baby ones.
Carrots, parsnips, and turnips are best kept in the fridge wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel or dishcloth—just remove their leafy tops, first, if they came with them.They’ll last in the fridge three to four weeks. Beets and celeriac also can be kept in a damp, clean towel in the fridge, minus any leaves that came with them. Both last about 10 to 14 days in the fridge. For radishes, remove their greens and then put them in a resealable plastic bag with a folded damp paper towel. They’ll also be good for up to two weeks. You don’t have to throw away the greens you’re removing, either—freeze them in a bag for stock, or throw them into a greens-heavy sauce, like a pesto, salsa, or gremolata.
One of the first few harbingers of spring, asparagus is a vegetable I’m particularly fond of. But it’s also one that gets limp fairly quickly in the fridge. Like your tender, leafy greens, asparagus are best eaten fairly quickly after you buy them, but you can prolong their life a bit. When you get a bunch of asparagus, trim off about an inch from the bottoms of the stalks. Then set the whole bunch upright in a water glass or mason jar, keeping about two inches of water at the bottom, like you would a bunch of herbs or flowers. Stick the jar in the fridge. Loosely cover the tops of the stalks with a plastic bag, and change the water if it gets cloudy.
If you live near a cornfield, or a farm, you might be familiar with the school of thought on cooking corn that is, basically, don’t pick an ear until the pot of water is already boiling. Unfortunately I live nowhere near a corn field, so I just get mine from the supermarket, and sometimes from a farmstand. But the adage does indicate something true about corn: It’s sweetest right after it’s picked, and the longer it sits in storage, the starchier it becomes. That’s OK for some purposes, like baking, but if you have fresh sweet corn, it’s better not to delay eating it too much. If you get the corn in a husk, keep it in there, and stick it in the fridge until you’re ready to peel and cook it. If not, keep it wrapped in a plastic bag, and enjoy it within a week. If you want to keep your corn for more long term storage, you can freeze it. Just blanch the ears of corn by dunking them in a pot of boiling water for a minute or so, dry it thoroughly, and freeze the whole cob. If you’d prefer, you can also strip the kernels off the cob after you blanch the corn and freeze just the kernels in a resealable freezer bag for up to a year.
Winter Squash and Pumpkins
For winter squashes, you don’t even need a refrigerator. A cool spot in your house will work just fine, as long as you keep them off the floor for air circulation—a rack is ideal. Keep the skin dry, and keep the squash away from fruits that off-gas as they ripen, like apples, avocados, and bananas. Watch for spots—if you see a squash develop spots, take it away from the other squashes, as it may be developing rot. If you see a spot, it’s OK—just wipe down the squash with a very gentle bleach solution, one part bleach to ten parts water, and make sure to peel or scrub thoroughly before you eat it. Most winter squashes keep up to six months in these conditions, but acorn squashes you’ll want to eat a little sooner, between one and two months.
Zucchini and Summer Squash
Summer squashes, like zucchini and yellow squash, are more tender than their winter cousins. Wipe them clean once you have them, and store in a plastic bag with one end open in the crisper drawer. Optimally, you would eat them within 5 days. Zucchinis can last a week or two, but they may begin to shrivel up a bit after a week. Summer squashes also freeze petty well—just slice them, blanch them, and freeze. They’ll keep for about three months.
Brussels Sprouts and Cabbage
Ever think about how Brussels sprouts are just tiny cabbages? Like cabbages for gerbils! Cute! Anyway, you can store them by keeping them in a plastic bag in the fridge. They’ll last at least a week, up to two weeks. Sprouts on the stalk keep longer, but I’ve only ever seen them sold like that in real life once, so don’t worry about it too much.
A whole head of cabbage, whether red, green, Napa, or Savoy, is a great vegetable to grab because it lasts a long time. All you need to do is keep it in its plastic wrap (or wrap them yourself if it didn’t come in such coverings) or a resealable plastic bag, and place it in the fridge. The crisper drawer is ideal, but cabbages can be large lads, so don’t fret if it doesn’t fit. It’ll stay fresh for two to three weeks.
Broccoli and Cauliflower
These similar-looking vegetables are both from the crucifer family, and require similar storage methods. For both, whole heads keep a lot longer than bags of pre-cut florets. The best way to store broccoli or cauliflower is to store stalks loosely in a plastic bag, and skip washing them until right before you need it. It’ll keep for a week or more, but it’s tastiest sooner rather than later.
Broccoli and cauliflower are also great candidates for freezing. Just break them up into florets, put on a sheet pan in the freezer, and then transfer to a freezer bag once they’re solidly frozen. Eat within six months for the best flavor.
Limp celery is truly a sad thing to behold. To keep your celery crisp, as my former colleague Maxine Builder wrote, you have to keep it hydrated. It’s the water pressure in celery cells that give it that delightful crunch. Keeping it wrapped in foil in the fridge does the trick—wrap it well but don’t crimp the edges. You want moisture to stay in, but not to trap the ethylene gas celery emits. Stalks of celery also keep well, either in a sealed zip-top plastic bag, or submerged in a Mason jar or a quart container. If your celery has already gone limp, soak it in water for an hour or two and you can partially revive it.
Keep mushrooms in the fridge, not at room temperature. They’ll be fine in the package they came in, if you bought a plastic-wrapped container at the supermarket. If you got them loose, brush off as much dirt as you can—don’t wash them. Put them in a paper bag and pop them in the fridge. Mushrooms don’t freeze well, sadly, so use them within a week of purchasing them, if you can.
Onions, Shallots, and Scallions
Whole onions, including white onions, yellow onions, sweet onions, red onions, and shallots, are in the root vegetable zone, lasting for up to a month outside the refrigerator if they’re stored in a cool, dark spot in a breathable bag or other container. They’ll keep that way for at least a month. The refrigerator may actually hasten the demise of your whole onions and encourage them to sprout. Chopped onions are best kept in an airtight container or resealable plastic bag in the fridge, where they’ll be OK up to 10 days. Scallions or leeks are best kept in a glass jar with an inch or two of water in the bottom to keep their roots submerged. Scallions that you’ve stored this way can even regrow after you’ve cut pieces from their tops, as long as you keep the jar in a spot that gets some sunlight and change out the water occasionally.
Another hardy, flavor-packed ingredient, garlic bulbs can keep up to six months when stored properly. Buy it whole, if you can, and not pre-peeled or minced. Then keep it in a dark, dry spot to prevent sprouting. If you have more garlic than you know what to do with, try making garlic confit and keeping it in the oil it’s cooked in. It’ll keep for about four months.
With a little time and care, you can extend the life of most vegetables so that you can get as much use out of them as you can, waste less food, and cut down on your trips to the grocery store.