How to Store Produce Without Plastic

Read aloud in a Brad Pitt drawl:

The first rule of food waste is: you do not buy too much food.

The second rule of food waste is: you do not buy too much food.

In an ideal world—one in which you have time to shop a few times a week at a local farmer’s market that runs daily—you’d buy what you need and eat it at its peak of freshness, flavor and nutrition. Or you would stroll outside into your yard and pluck what you need from your lush, prolific, year-round garden. For most of us, these scenarios are neither possible nor practical. And with winter now upon us in the Northern Hemisphere and many farmer’s markets closed, a lot of us will buy whatever fresh produce we can get our hands on or eat from the stockpiles we squirreled away in the fall.

My farmer’s market runs year-round on Sundays only so I buy what I need for the entire week that day. Some of the more delicate produce I pick out will start to turn the next day, so when I get my delicious investment home, to maintain optimal freshness, I store everything following the simple guidelines I’ve outlined in this post. This reduces food waste and makes my week run much smoother. I have a job and at home, I have a teenager, a needy cat and a helpless hamster. I also maintain this blog and try to keep up (somewhat) with social media (it’s impossible). Like most of you, I am very busy.

“Excuse me, I have gas.” — Mr. Apple

If you follow the first and second rule of food-waste prevention, you don’t need to worry too much about ethylene gas because you eat your food before it starts to spoil. But if, like most people, you buy lots of produce at one go, you may find this information helpful.

Ethylene, a small hydrocarbon gas, causes produce to ripen. It softens fruit and changes its texture and flavor. Many types of fruit and some vegetables produce this hormone naturally. Big food producers use it unnaturally to ripen fruit picked early—tomatoes and bananas for example. This allows agribusinesses to ship said tomatoes and bananas very long distances. Once the food arrives at its destination, ethylene gassing forces ripening. Because the food was picked so early, it has little flavor. Blech.

Some types of ethylene-sensitive produce over-ripen and spoil when exposed to it. So keep ethylene producing food away from ethylene-sensitive food.

Ethylene producers
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Nectarines
  • Papayas
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes
Ethylene-sensitive
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chayotes
  • Collard Greens
  • Grapefruit
  • Green Beans
  • Kale
  • Kiwifruit
  • Lemons
  • Lettuce
  • Mangos
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Oranges
  • Persimmons
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Watermelon
  • Yellow Squash

In addition, the ethylene emitters are also ethylene-sensitive so if you store them all together, do so in a way that air can circulate and ethylene can escape (i.e., no plastic).

Confused? Follow this basic rule: separate fruit and vegetables and keep bananas away from everything.

A large farmer's market haul (including 20 lbs of tomatoes)
A large farmer’s market haul (including 20 lbs of tomatoes)

Where to store produce for optimal freshness

Before I get into individual types of produce, here are some general rules.

Store it on the counter

For optimum flavor, store most fruit and many vegetables at room temperature if you will consume them within one to three days. Refrigerator temperatures—generally around the mid-thirty degree Fahrenheit range—damage the flavor and texture of many types of produce.

If you can buy only what you need for the next few days, store it on the kitchen counter, away from direct sunlight and ditch your refrigerator (well maybe you won’t go quite that far, but you can free up space in there at least). Remember, this is the ideal.

Store it in a cool, dry place

If you are lucky enough to have a root cellar or cool, dry basement, you can store piles of produce there for long periods of time, up to a year for some varieties. Good contenders include apples (but away from everything else because they produce ethylene gas), beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, garlic, onions, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins, rutabaga, sweet potato, turnips and winter squash. However, cure garlic, onions, pumpkins and winter squash before storing. The root cellar is another post… Make sure everything has good ventilation.

Store it in the refrigerator

Use cloth produce bags so your produce can breathe and store vegetables in crisper drawers. These drawers keep produce crisp because there, food retains more moisture. The open space of the main refrigerator compartment can draw moisture out of produce.

To store larger vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower, I just toss them in the crisper drawer and let them rattle around in there. Store cut fruit and vegetables in glass jars and glass containers. You’ll keep air out and you can see what you have on hand at a glance instead of wondering and finding out only after the food has rotted.

Asparagus to watermelon: A list of how to store what

This post is a bit Northern California-centric, as I live here and I’ve included mostly what I can buy locally. I may have excluded some of the produce you buy. Everyone’s list will differ.

IMG_20160509_095453
Asparagus stays fresh for over a week when placed in a glass of water set out on the counter

Vegetables

Asparagus. Store at room temperature in a glass of water with the stems down. The asparagus will keep for over a week. Change the water mid-week.

Avocado. Store at room temperature until ripe and then transfer to the refrigerator to store. If you eat only half of an avocado, store the other half in the refrigerator with the pit in. It will keep longer.

Basil. Storage in the refrigerator can brown the leaves and speed up basil’s demise. Store it at room temperature with stems places in a jar of water. Large bunches can double as a centerpiece 😉

Beets. Greens draw moisture out of root vegetables. Remove them and store separately in the refrigerator for up to a few days. Store the beets in the crisper drawer for up to 10 days.

Bell peppers. Store these in a cool place, however, cold temperatures in the refrigerator can cause them to break down faster. If you don’t have a cool spot for storage, in the refrigerator peppers will last for a few days.

Bok choy. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week in a cloth produce bag.

Broccoli. Broccoli perishes quickly. Store it in the refrigerator in a cloth produce bag and eat within three or four days.

Brussels sprout. Like broccoli, brussels sprout perish quickly. Store them in the refrigerator in a cloth produce bag and eat within a few days. I can sometimes buy them on the stalk but can’t quite fit that in my refrigerator so I try to use them up almost immediately when I buy them this way.

Cabbage. Store loose in the crisper drawer and use within about two weeks.

Carrots. Remove the greens and store in the refrigerator in a cloth produce bag or loose in the crisper drawer. They will keep for a week or longer.

Cauliflower. I store this loose in the refrigerator crisper drawer. Use it within a week.

Celery. For this blog post, I experimented with celery. I put a few sad looking stalks in a jar of water and left that jar out on my kitchen counter. It perked up after half a day or so and actually looked better than fresh new celery I had socked away in the refrigerator. If you store your celery this way, change the water mid-week. Or store your celery in the refrigerator. I don’t bother putting it in a cloth produce bag but you can if you prefer.

Corn. Within hours of being picked, corn loses up to 40 percent of its sugar. Eat it as soon as you buy it. If you must store it, put it in a warmer part of the refrigerator in the husk for up to three days.

Cucumber. The refrigerator is too cool for these and can damage the texture. They do best around 50 degrees Fahrenheit—much warmer than the refrigerator. If you do store them in the refrigerator, eat them within a few days.

Dark leafy greens. I like to prep greens—chard, collards, kale and spinach—in advance as they turn very quickly. Remove the stems, cut, wash and spin dry in a cloth produce bag (I do this outside). Store them in the same now-damp but not wet cloth produce bag. Use them up within a week.

Eggplant. Store at room temperature. Colder temperatures can damage them. They will keep for about a week.

Green beans. These perish quickly so gobble them up soon after buying. Store them in a cloth produce bag in the refrigerator for about three days. Cut off the stem only, not the edible end. This reduces waste and saves time.

Herbs. Store in cloth produce bags in the refrigerator for up to a week (except for basil—see basil above).

Hot peppers. Like bell peppers, hot peppers do better outside of the refrigerator. Store jalapeños, poblanos and serrano chiles at room temperature. If you will use them within a few days, you can keep them in the refrigerator.

Lettuce. Store lettuce in the refrigerator. I buy whole heads of lettuce (Romaine, butter lettuce, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce), not salad mix and prep it the same way I prep dark leafy greens. Cut, wash, spin, then store in cloth produce bag in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Leeks. Store them in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Mushrooms. Store them cloth produce bag in the refrigerator. Use up these delicate fungi soon after purchase. Some varieties will keep for up to a week.

Onions and shallots. Store them in a cool, dry place but not in the refrigerator, as the cold temperature can damage the flavor and texture.

Potatoes. Store in a cool but not cold place and keep them away from ethylene producing fruit and strong-smelling garlic, onions and leeks, which can impart their flavors onto potatoes. Also, keep them away from light to avoid greening.

Pumpkin, winter squash. They don’t do well in the refrigerator. Store at room temperature.

Radishes. Remove the greens and store separately for a few days in the refrigerator. Store the radishes themselves in a cloth produce bag, also in the refrigerator, for up to two weeks.

Root vegetables. Store beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga and turnips at cold temperatures in the refrigerator. If you have a root cellar, store them there for the long haul.

Scallions (aka green onions). Store them in a cloth produce bag in the refrigerator and use within a week.

Sprouts. If you make these yourself, wait until they have completely dried from their final rinse before you store them in either a cloth produce bag, glass jar or glass container. Store purchased sprouts in the same manner.

Summer squash (such as zucchini). This perishes quickly. Store in the refrigerator for up to several days.

Sweet potatoes. Like regular potatoes, store in a cool place but do not refrigerate.

Tomatoes. Store at room temperature. Do not refrigerate! Cold temperatures result in mealy tomatoes devoid of flavor.

nectarines and peaches
Delicious 2016 harvest of both nectarines and peaches from a single tree I planted in 2003

Fruit

Apples. Apples will keep for about a week at room temperature and longer in the refrigerator. In a cold cellar, they can keep for several months. They give off quite a bit of ethylene (except for Fuji and Granny Smith), so keep them away from other produce, unless you want that produce to ripen quickly, such as hard avocados, pears or Hachiya persimmons.

Bananas. I rarely buy bananas. They travel such a long distance to get to me. But my daughter likes them so I buy them occasionally. Store them at room temperature and  keep them away from everything else as they give off lots of ethylene and will speed up the demise of other produce (unless that produce isn’t ripe and you want to ripen it).

Cherries and berries. Cherries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries turn quickly so ideally, eat them the day you buy them. If you must wait, store them in the refrigerator in glass containers or a cloth produce bag for up to about five days. Don’t cram them into giant jars or bags though or they’ll bruise. Wash and stem them just before you eat them. They don’t emit much ethylene.

Cantaloupe and honeydew melons. Melons do best at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so store them in a cool area but not a cold refrigerator. If you need to store half a melon (with the rind still on), leave the seeds in and store in the refrigerator, face down on a plate to prevent exposure to air.

Citrus. Store grapefruit, lemons, limes and oranges at room temperature for a couple of weeks. In the refrigerator, they can develop spots on the rind.

Figs. I adore figs. When I buy them, they may last until I get them home, which works out because they go south quickly. Store them in the refrigerator in a glass container in a single layer to prolong them. Don’t wash them until you’re ready to eat them.

Grapes. Like most items in this list, these turn quickly. Store in a cloth produce bag and refrigerate for up to five days to prolong freshness.

Kiwis. If they’re hard, store them in the refrigerator for up to a month and remove as desired to ripen. Once ripe—or if you bought them ripe—return them to the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

Pears. Store at room temperature until ripe and them move to the refrigerator where they will keep for several days.

Persimmons. Store both Hachiyas and Fuyus at room temperature. Eat Hachiyas when they have practically rotted. They taste astonishingly delicious at that point (before, truly disgusting).

Pomegranates. Store these in a cool but not cold place. Store seeds in a glass jar or glass container in the refrigerator for a few days.

Stone fruits. Highly perishable apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums will turn quickly so gobble them up while they’re fresh. If you buy them hard, store them at room temperature until ripe, then transfer to the refrigerator for up to several days.

Watermelon. Keep these at room temperature. Cold temperatures can damage their flesh, resulting in pitting and loss of color and flavor. Watermelons are ethylene-sensitive, so keep them away from fruit that produce high amounts of ethylene.

The moral of the story

1. When possible, buy only what you can eat within a few days (unless you have a root cellar, in which case, you likely grow your own food too).

2. Refrigeration (a fairly recent invention) can zap food of its flavor and texture. See #1.

3. We don’t live in a perfect world, so shop and store according to your needs.


To write this long post, I used my own experiences and did quite a bit of research. (This post nearly sent me over the edge.) I used sources such as UC Davis, the California Department of Public Health, the USDA, my trusty copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. I found quite a bit of conflicting information in the process. So if you store your produce differently or have some tips you’d like to share, I would love to hear them (as I believe would my readers).

23 Comment

  1. I haven’t read this post in full yet but I am already immensely impressed and wanted to thank you immediately for the wonderful service you provide and for your dedication to the cause and to all of us who are striving and who can still do better. So appreciate your effort, your accuracy, your style and your humour.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks so much Wendy. I so appreciate you reading my blog! ~ Anne Marie

  2. What an amazing resource! Thank you for putting this together! I have great success storing apples and potatoes together in the fridge. The potatoes never sprout before before being consumed, which can be several weeks. The apples stay crisp.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      My pleasure Julie. I love writing these posts. Thank you for reading it 🙂 Thanks also for the info on your apples and potatoes. It’s so helpful to hear what other people do at home. ~ Anne Marie

      1. Anne Marie, I’d love to hear how you store bread without plastic. I’ve tried cotton bags, but it seems to suck out all of the moisture in the bread and leave it rather stale in no time. I wonder if linen would be a better choice? Any ideas?

  3. great post… Thank you! I have had incredibly good luck storing fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro. Put the stems in a small jar filled with water in the fridge. I do use a reusable plastic bag ( like a tiny shower cap) over the tops of the herbs. It’s not completely plastic free, but it keeps my herbs fresh for about 2 weeks. It was my homemade version of the herb storage jars that sell for about $20

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for that info Karen. Herbs must be one of the most wasted types of produce. You usually need just a small amount but generally have to buy a large bunch. And they aren’t inexpensive either! ~ Anne Marie

      1. These tips are awesome, Anne Marie! One trick I have if I see herbs going south is to chop them up finely and stuff them in an ice tray then fill up the tray with water. You can store them as cubes in the freezer. This works great for cilantro. Not as good as fresh but it makes you feel less guilty about wasting a big bunch.

  4. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Great post yet again, I learned a few new tricks. I was confused about the suggestion to ‘cure’ garlic, onions etc…Could you please tell me what that means?

    Thanks!

    Madeleine.x

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Madeleine 🙂 Curing is just a way to prep vegetables before you store them for the long haul in a root cellar. For pumpkins and some types of squash, you just set them out in the sun for a couple of weeks to harden the rind. To cure garlic, you string the bulbs together in bunches and hang the strings in an area out of direct sunlight and with air circulating to dry the garlic out before storing. I have never done any curing (I don’t have a root cellar). I’ve only read about it. Some day maybe I’ll have a farm and will learn how to do it.

  5. Great tip about the celery, thanks. I wrap everything in old napkins, as I don’t have enough cloth bags. For cilantro, after using fresh for a few days from the “vase” in the fridge, I chop it finely and spread onto a cloth. When dryish, I put it on a cookie sheet and freeze it. You can then break it into bits and put it in one of your many jam jars – it keeps for a couple of months and is fine for cooking.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the tip Katy. Herbs must be near or at the top of the list for “food that goes to waste most.” I freeze a lot of fruit and some vegetables but I haven’t tried freezing herbs. That would be very handy to have in there.

  6. Thanks for the tips! From them, I think I need a vegetable basket on my kitchen counter, in addition to my onion & garlic and ground provisions ones. My eggplant does get soft in the fridge, for example. I store carrots in a glass jar in the crisper as I find they wrinkle and get soft otherwise. I tried the cloth bags briefly in the fridge but didn’t find they worked very well. Luckily, since I love them, I can grow bananas. Waiting for the ethylene gas to kick in a little quicker on my kitchen table presently.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for checking them out 🙂 I’m jealous of your banana-growing capabilities. I’m noticing a trend in these comments–glass jars in the fridge for vegetable and herb storage are very popular.

  7. Lovely article – so important! I would like to contribute my trick for keeping tender herbs fresh A REALLY LONG TIME. Wash and spin dry (however you like to do that), then store them in a beautiful glass jar with a lid. Cilantro stays beautiful for TWO WEEKS. Parsley lasts a month. I use it up before then, but if it’s fresh from the farmer’s market, and put into its jar into the fridge, it will last that long! I do this with salad greens, too, except they go in one of those slanted candy-jar things with the metal lid, so I can just reach in and grab a handful of washed, torn lettuce. I think I heard about this from Beth Terry of My Plastic-Free Life.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Ooooh, thanks for the tips. I’ll try that the next time I buy herbs. They turn so quickly and I don’t always use the whole bunch at once. I love the candy jar for your greens. That sounds so convenient! I’m going to keep an eye out for one of those at the thrift shop.

  8. Great advice but I live in Australia so what do I do as my room temperature is 30 -35 degrees (86 – 95 F)? As I live in the Aussie bush It’s also hard to find areas where animals can’t get to my produce if left out. Any thoughts greatly appreciated

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Wow, that’s warm! Well, I think 1. buying less food and 2. storing it in the refrigerator would be your best tactics. If you do store any at room temperature, could you put it in a cupboard?

  9. Awesome post! I have found that if you buy a half flat of strawberries from the farmers market, you can store them for almost a week in the fridge using a 9×13 glass rectangle or larger container. Big berries on bottom, not washed and laying on their leaves, then stack the smaller ones loosely until you run out of room to close the container easily. Don’t store the broken or bruised ones-eat that day. I’ve done this process for years now-my kids can put away strawberries like crazy!

    Also, once you’ve exhausted the amount of berries you can eat before they go bad, freeze them! Youd be surprised what you can make later with a huge load of fresh to freezer berries! I haven’t bought frozen fruit in years now.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the tips Shelly. I’m going to try this refrigerator trick when strawberry season rolls back around. I freeze them also. It works so well. No need to buy frozen fruit! ~ Anne Marie

  10. For celery and lettuces, I also cut the leaves/branches at about 2″ from the base and put the base in a glass of water so the base is in a bit of water, change the water every 2 days and celery and lettuces regrow. When leaves are high enough, I transplant in a small pot with a good soil and I have free velery and lettuces that gorws all winter… In summer, I put them in the garden. Oh! and I do the same with scallions too…

  11. […] also many different ways of storing vegetables without having to use plastic – just ask the Zero Waste Chef.  As far as price is concerned, I either found my glass jars in thrift stores, or reused ones that […]

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