Fresh Foods and Food Safety - Part 2: How To Choose And Store Fresh Fruits And Vegetables

This article is the second in our series about Fresh Foods and Food Safety: How to buy, how long to keep, what to toss out, and how to store fresh foods and pantry items. This week we are exploring the best way to select and store fresh fruits and vegetables.

The nutritional value of fruits and vegetables in our diets is well documented, but they can be expensive. As summer approaches fresh produce becomes more available, hopefully at a more affordable cost. The key to enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables is to know how to buy them and how to store them to get the best flavor, with the least amount of waste.

Some fruits and vegetables do better in the refrigerator, while others are better left out at room temperature. Some can even be frozen. The first step is to buy fruits and vegetables in the best possible condition, becoming ripe but not overly so.

Specific tips for individual fruits and vegetables

  • Apples are best stored in the refrigerator. Store them in plastic bags and wash them before just before eating.

  • Asparagus and Fresh Herbs are best kept standing up in an airtight container, with about an inch of water at their "feet". Change the water daily. When buying asparagus look for tender thin stalks. The larger stalks tend to be tougher.

  • Avocados You can test if they are ripe by inserting a toothpick through the stem end. They are best ripened in a paper bag at room temperature.

  • Bananas Choose bananas in varying stages of ripeness (yes, it is ok to split bunches) and use each banana as it ripens, indicated by numerous small, brown spots. They should ripen on the counter; put them in the refrigerator only when fully ripe. The skins may turn black, but the fruit can still be used in baking or making smoothies.

  • Cantaloupe A sweet, ripe cantaloupe should give off a sweet aroma and have a tight netting that is tan or yellow, not green. When you push in on the end it should give slightly. Ripen firm cantaloupes at room temperature.

  • Celery Store in the refrigerator crisper. Wash just before use. Limp celery can be brought back to life by immersing it in ice water for about 20 minutes.

  • Corn on the cob Buy it as quickly as you can after picking, looking for green husks. The longer it is off the stalk, the more the sugar will turn to starch and deaden the flavor. When you bring it home refrigerate it immediately and cook it the same day, dropping into boiling water and boiling for only 2-3 minutes. Test with a fork; the kernel should pierce easily, but still be firm. Drain the water out of the pan and return the corn to the dry pan, off the heat, to keep it hot for serving. Corn can also successfully be grilled. The traditional method of grilling is to strip the corn of the husk and silk, brush with butter, add seasoning (can be salt, spices, herbs) and wrap completely in aluminum foil. Place on medium hot grill, rolling the ears occasionally for even cooking. After a few minutes move to side of grill or higher shelf and cook for 10-15 minutes. Carefully remove the foil, it will be very hot. Grilling in the husk produces a smokier flavor. First completely submerge the corns with husks in large pot of water and soak for several minutes to an hour. Shake off the excess water, pull the husks back (without removing them), remove whatever silk strands you can, brush with olive oil or butter and season. Re-wrap the husks, twisting at the ends. Cook as above for up to 15 minutes. The husks may turn black, but the corn will steam beautifully, with perhaps a few grill marks. Do the fork test, and make sure the ears are still firm. If they are flexible the corn is overcooked and will be mushy.

  • Garlic Buy white or cream-colored heads that do not have overly dry or darkish skins. Buy it frequently; avoid letting cloves dry out. If you have more garlic than you can use, peel it and store it in a container with olive or vegetable oil. It can also be peeled and frozen in an airtight container. While buying pre-chopped garlic in a jar may be convenient, it never has the depth of flavor as fresh.

  • Grapes First, be careful, it is easy to buy seeded grapes when you thought you were buying seedless. Purchase firm grapes without blemishes and store in the refrigerator. They can be frozen as treats, just rinse, dry and dip in powdered sugar; store in a plastic bag in the freezer and your children/grandchildren will have a great, sweet, healthy treat.

  • Lemons and Limes The best are heavy, indicating they are filled with juice. Also, the skin should give a bit when you touch it, without a rind that is overly thick. Submerging a lemon in hot water for 15 minutes will yield twice the amount of juice. Microwaving them for a few seconds and rolling them on the counter also works. Rinds can be stored in the freezer in an airtight bag for when you need zest.

  • Onions Store at room temperature away from potatoes. Some grocers suggest that wrapping them in aluminum foil helps keep them from sprouting or becoming soft. Once cut, rub butter on the cut side to keep it fresh longer. Onions freeze beautifully, just chop and store in a heavy freezer-proof plastic bag.

  • Oranges are best kept in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for three weeks. At room temperature you'll cut two-thirds off the shelf life.

  • Peaches and Nectarines should have a sweet aroma when you purchase them, with a little give when pressed. Do not purchase peaches with a greenish tint; they will not ripen. Store them carefully at room temperature. A blemish or soft spot will quickly grow larger. Only refrigerate when fully ripe.

  • Pears Press the top near the stem. A little give in the flesh indicates it is ready to purchase. Unlike most other fruits, pears actually ripen better off the tree, reducing the gritty texture. They ripen best at room temperature in a fruit bowl or paper bag.

  • Pineapples should have a yellow tint. Don't buy a pineapple unless you can pull out one of the leaves out of the crown, without tugging too hard. But, make sure the rest of the pineapple is still relatively firm to the touch. Any real softness could mean that the pineapple is overly ripe. To store, wrap below the crown in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. Or, remove from the shell, slice and store in airtight containers in the refrigerator.

  • Potatoes Don't buy potatoes with a greenish tint, and toss out any with eyes that have sprouted. Store them in a cool dry place, but not with onions. Do not store white or sweet potatoes in the refrigerator. At temperatures under 50 degrees the starch is altered, changing the flavor. If you have left over uncooked, peeled potatoes, cover them with cold water and a few drops of vinegar. You can keep them in the refrigerator for 3 days. Left-over baked potatoes can be rebaked - just dip them in water and bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.

  • Strawberries Buy them at the peek of condition and use them quickly. They should be bright red and firm, but not hard. White or green spots indicate they are under ripe and they will not ripen off the vine. Dark red berries are overripe and will be mushy and wet. Store them in a colander in the refrigerator to allow for air to circulate to keep them fresh. A strawberry showing signs of mold can quickly contaminate the whole container, so toss out any that are not in good condition. You can freeze them by mixing with sugar and putting them in containers with a little space at the top. If you want to freeze without the sugar, slice and place on a cookie sheet, freeze until hard and then put in freezer bags.

  • Tomatoes should be firm, with a little give. Store them on the counter out of the sun, or in a paper bag. Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator, it diminishes their flavor.

In future weeks Boomerater will provide articles on how to safely store and freeze meat, dairy and homemade dishes, and how to store and when to toss out items in your pantry.

Read Part One of this series -:Fresh Foods and Food Safety: How to Prevent Food Poisoning

Information sources used in this series:

Foodsafety.gov;Stilltasty.com; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Ohio State University Cooperative Extension Service, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association (www.poultryegg.org), Old Farmer's Almanac Hearth & Home Companion, www.thefruitpages.com