How to Clean Produce for Longer Storage and Less Food Waste

Reader Contribution by Carole Cancler
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Recent data indicates that Americans waste up to one-half of our fresh fruits and vegetables. When handling fresh produce, you can adopt a few simple habits to eliminate food waste in your home:

One of the simplest steps you can take to reduce food waste is to buy only the fresh produce you can use within a week.

If you routinely throw out spoiled fruits and vegetables, keep a running list of items you discard.

Adjust your shopping list and eating habits according to the amount of your food waste. Perhaps you need to buy less fruit. Or, eat more salad.

Use the following ideas to clean fruits and vegetables so they stay fresh longer or to use up excess produce in creative and delicious ways.

How to Clean Food Preparation and Storage Areas

Cleaning removes microorganisms that are naturally present everywhere: around the home, on your hands, and on fresh fruits and vegetables. Before you wash produce, first wash your hands with soap and running water. Then clean the food preparation areas (counter, cutting board, etc.). Don’t forget to clean the storage area, including the refrigerator bin or shelf where fresh produce will be stored.

To clean the food preparation and storage area, use soap and warm water. Rinse the soapy solution with clean water. Air dry clean items or if needed wipe with a clean towel.

Thorough washing takes care of most dirt and germs. Foodborne illness is more typically caused by eating raw or undercooked meats or fish, cross contamination during food preparation, and leftovers that are not properly refrigerated or reheated.

Why and How to Sanitize Work Areas

Sanitizing is an additional step to further reduce harmful bacteria. Sanitizing is helpful if you are pregnant, have small children or elderly persons in the household, or have medical issues that compromise your immune system.

Sanitize the work and storage areas using plain distilled, white vinegar. Spray or spread vinegar using a clean towel on clean surfaces. Let the vinegar stand at least 10 minutes. Air dry sanitized items or if needed wipe with a clean towel before beginning food preparation.

Alternatively, you can heat vinegar to 130°F, spray or wipe, and let stand one minute. Hot vinegar kills more types of microorganisms, including Salmonella, Norovirus, Campylobacter, E. coli, and Listeria.

Vinegar works because it lowers the surface pH (a measure of acidity) on work surfaces or on produce. The increased acidity is inhospitable to microbes, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds.

To clean firm produce like apples, scrub with a stiff brush under running water

How to Wash Produce Effectively

While many sources suggest that you wash produce just before consumption or food preparation, cleaning produce before storing it in the refrigerator has two advantages:

Saves time later. Washed fruit and vegetables are ready for snacking or cutting for recipe preparation.

Stays fresh longer. Clean produce stays fresh a few days longer in the refrigerator.

The exception is fresh produce that is typically stored at room temperature, rather than in the refrigerator. This includes potatoes, sweet potatoes or yams, onions, and garlic.

To wash produce, use plain, cold water. Do not use detergent, soap, bleach, or commercial produce washes. These products won’t significantly reduce contamination beyond what thorough cleaning with plain, cold water can do.

How to Wash Different Types of Produce

To wash firm produce, rinse well under running water, while scrubbing lightly with a vegetable brush. Firm produce includes fruits and vegetables such as apples, carrots, melons, oranges or lemons and other citrus fruits, and winter squash or pumpkin.

To wash soft produce, rinse well under running water. Handle carefully to avoid bruising or damaging delicate produce.  Soft produce includes those with soft or uneven surfaces, such as broccoli, leafy greens, mushrooms, peaches, and tomatoes.

To wash soft berries such as raspberries, dip berries gently in a basin of cold water. Repeat two or three times, or until no more debris is present in the rinse water.

Drain washed produce in a clean colander. Let produce air-dry if possible. If necessary, pat the surface dry with clean towels.

Why and How to Sanitize Produce

Like the work area, you can use vinegar as a sanitizer to rid produce of harmful bacteria. Vinegar is a great food sanitizer because it’s inexpensive and perfectly safe to eat.

Sanitizing produce is an optional step that can further eliminate microorganisms that washing may have missed. But it also works to delay spoilage. 

To use vinegar for sanitizing produce, prepare a solution of one part distilled white vinegar and three parts water. For example, one quart vinegar and three quarts water.

To sanitize produce, first be sure to wash it thoroughly and let dry before sanitizing. Fill a clean basin with sanitizing solution. Soak clean produce for two minutes. For soft berries, you may wish to skip the sanitizing step since it tends to break them down.

Drain produce in a clean colander. Let air-dry if possible or pat the surface dry with clean towels.

To wash delicate produce such as fresh berries, gently rinse in several changes of water

Storing Cleaned Produce

Place clean produce in a clean container or bag and refrigerate.

To avoid cross-contamination, never store washed and unwashed produce in the same container or with other foods.

Fresh produce, even when carefully cleaned and refrigerated rarely has a storage life longer than one week, often less.

Fresh produce begins to wilt and become limp after a few days. Eventually it will spoil, evidenced by mushy or slimy areas, dark spots or mold, and pungent odor.

Recipe Ideas for Using Excess Produce

Before it spoils, be proactive and use the following recipe ideas to use up produce rather than let it go to waste.

Almost any kind of vegetable can be made into soup, even lettuce, greens, and cucumber. Vegetable soups are delicious and filling as a snack or before a meal.

To make simple soup, cover vegetables with water or stock and simmer until tender. Puree cooked vegetables (using a stick blender is easiest), add seasonings to taste, and a touch of cream or milk, if desired. If you’re not going to eat the soup within a few days, freeze it for another day (preferably before adding cream).

Other ideas for using vegetables include eating them as a snack with dip, using them in a salad or stir fry, making an omelet or frittata, topping a pizza, or preserving as a pickle—cut vegetables immersed in a seasoned vinegar or lemon juice solution.

Use the above techniques and recipe ideas to help reduce the amount of produce you discard. You will substantially reduce your food waste and save some money in the process.

Almost any kind of vegetable can be made into soup, including lettuce, greens, and cucumber.

Carole Cancleris the author ofThe Home Preserving Bible. She has traveled to more than 20 countries on four continents to attend cooking schools and explore food markets. She studies the anthropology of food with a focus on how indigenous foods have traveled and been integrated into world cuisine. Read all of Carole’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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