Everyone’s food-buying habits have changed, to say the least, since mid-March. People can’t grocery-shop as frequently as they used to, at least not for a while. And though it might feel most practical to beeline to the frozen and canned sections of the store (or freeze the food you buy), we think the snap of fresh greens or the crunch of raw carrots is worth making the effort for. One of the big challenges right now is keeping those perishables fresh for weeks once you get them home. A good strategy is to choose hardy produce that can withstand time, and to learn how to properly (and creatively) store it for maximum shelf life. So let’s run down the produce, storage methods, and gear that will (hopefully) keep you stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Selecting the freshest fruits and veggies is the first step to getting the longest storage life in your kitchen. According to The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, leafy greens should be “richly colored” and without “any limp or yellowing leaves,” which signal that they’re past their prime. When you’re choosing root vegetables, cabbages, squash, and onions, The New Food Lover’s Companion advises that they should “be heavy for their size” and without blemishes or soft spots. If you rely on grocery delivery, you don’t have as much control over the quality of your produce, but selecting certain types of produce can buy you more longevity. But first, a primer on how to think about storing it all.
Consider the conditions
When storing fresh fruits and vegetables, you have to consider “temperature, ethylene, and airflow—the big three,” said Emily Gove, sales strategist in fresh produce at Equal Exchange. A lot of produce keeps well in the refrigerator, while some items like potatoes, onions, and garlic are best left at cool room temperatures.
And then there’s ethylene gas (PDF), which some fruits—such as apples and bananas—naturally release. It hastens the ripening (and eventual decay) of certain types of produce that are ethylene-sensitive, like cabbage, leafy greens, lettuce, and broccoli, just to name a few. Whether you refrigerate or not, you should keep ethylene-sensitive fruits and veggies separate from the gas-emitting ones.
Produce that keeps best at room temperature needs air circulation. Plastic bags equal premature spoilage. Even if the bananas, potatoes, or onions you bought came in a perforated plastic bag, they’ll last longer if you take them out and let them breathe.
Most refrigerated produce stays fresh longer when sealed, whether in zip-top plastic bags, reusable silicone pouches, or containers with tight-fitting lids. These containers hold in moisture, preventing produce from dehydrating, and they help protect sensitive produce from the effects of ethylene gas. You can use produce bags from the grocery store, too.
The factors that affect produce freshness (temperature, humidity, how long ago an item was harvested before you brought it home) can vary widely. Everyone hopes to limit food waste right now, and you may be able to get more life out of your produce than the timelines we suggest. Use your judgment—if it looks, smells, and tastes just fine, you may not want to default to throwing it away. On the other hand, if something feels off, trust your instincts and follow the food safety adage: When in doubt, throw it out.
[We’ve included a chart at the end of this guide for your convenience. You can print it out and post it in your kitchen as an easy reference.]
Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Don’t refrigerate.
- Store in a cool, dark place with relatively high humidity.
- Allow air circulation.
- Keep separate from onions, bananas, and other ethylene-producing items.
Whether they’re starchy (russets) or waxy (Yukon Golds), potatoes keep for a few weeks when stored in a cool, dark place such as an air-conditioned pantry or a cellar, away from large appliances, which generate heat. In Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes, Harold McGee writes: “At warm room temperatures, potatoes will sprout and decay. At refrigerator temperatures … they convert some starch into sugar, and can brown too quickly and scorch when fried.” Potatoes are also ethylene-sensitive and shouldn’t hang out near onions or bananas.
My russets, Yukon Golds, and sweet potatoes are pretty happy chilling with the vino.
Even under ideal conditions, potatoes eventually sprout or turn green. Advice about whether they’re still safe to eat at that point is conflicting. Poison Control says to toss potatoes if they’re green or have sprouts. Personally we’ve found that as long as the potato is still firm, you can cut off the sprouts and eyes before you cook and be just fine. Green skin or flesh, however, is an indication that the potato contains toxic levels of two glycoalkaloids (PDF) and should be thrown out.
Sweet potatoes and yams do well in similar storage conditions but might have a shorter shelf life (about one to two weeks) than regular spuds. Refrigerated sweet potatoes develop a hard center and can take longer to cook, so stash them with your other potatoes in a cool, dark place. Sprouted sweet potatoes are safe to eat; just trim off the sprouts before cooking. But you should discard any shriveled, moldy, or rotten sweet potatoes.
Bonus tip: You can convert a wine fridge into a root cellar. I’m not advocating that everyone buy a special refrigerator for their potatoes. But if you have a wine fridge with an empty shelf or two, stash some potatoes in there. I did just that, and my russets, Yukon Golds, and sweet potatoes are pretty happy chilling with the vino.
Other roots and tubers
- Remove any leafy green tops.
- Refrigerate in a plastic bag for the longest life.
- For a shorter term (up to two weeks), store loose in your crisper drawer.
Beets, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, parsnips, and ginger are long-term storage superstars since they aren’t fussy about where in the fridge you keep them. Because they don’t release much ethylene gas, you can store root vegetables next to more gas-sensitive produce like leafy greens, cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower. Ginger is especially hardy and can handle a decent amount of abuse. I usually toss loose ginger roots in my vegetable crisper drawer, where they keep well for a few weeks.
If you buy carrots, beets, or turnips with their greens still attached, remove those tops down to the root before storing, since they pull moisture out of the vegetable. The roots will stay fresh for at least a few weeks sealed in zip-top bags or airtight containers in the refrigerator. Beet and turnip greens are delicious in soups or stir fries. Store them separately as you would other leafy greens, and they should stay fresh for about a week.
Radishes, while technically part of the cabbage family, act a lot like other root vegetables. They stay fresh for a long time in the fridge—sometimes up to three weeks—when stored in an airtight container, and they keep longer without their leafy greens attached (you can eat these, too). You can find typical red radishes year-round, but also keep an eye out for daikon radishes, watermelon radishes, and breakfast radishes.
Onions and garlic
- Don’t refrigerate.
- Store in a cool, dark place with low humidity.
- Allow some air circulation.
- Keep separate from potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Common onions and garlic, members of the allium family, are easy to keep fresh if you keep them away from moisture, which makes them spoil faster. First, choose firm, unblemished bulbs with dry skins. Second, store them in a cool, dry, dark place with air circulation—never in a plastic bag or airtight container. I keep my garlic and onions in a dry food storage container without the lid. You can store onions and garlic together, ideally not near the stove or other appliances, but keep them separate from potatoes: Onions and garlic thrive in low humidity (65 to 75 percent), while potatoes love cool, humid (85 to 90 percent) air. Refrigerate leftover cut onions wrapped in plastic or beeswax wrap or sealed in a food storage container.
And don’t stress if alliums sprout green shoots from the top. Both the bulbs and shoots are safe to eat, but you can also cut away the green parts and proceed as normal.
Cabbage and its cousins
- Refrigerate in sealed containers.
- Uncut heads can be refrigerated without a bag.
- Once cut, seal in an airtight container.
I don’t know if there’s a more perfect food than a humble head of cabbage. It shines in soups, braises, salads, slaws, and stir fries. It’s delightful pickled, fermented, broiled, or grilled. And it lasts for what seems like an eternity in the fridge. Although a whole head is bulky, you can store one naked in your crisper drawer. If space is an issue, you can store it quartered in a zip-top bag. The cut edges may start to oxidize after a week or two, but you can shave off the discolored parts and be back in business.
Like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are hardy and versatile. Whole crowns stay crisp for up to two weeks in plastic bags or in containers with lids.
- Store at room temperature.
- Keep away from bananas and other ethylene producers.
You don’t need to waste refrigerator space on hard winter squashes like butternut, acorn, and kabocha. Store these thick-skinned gourds in a cool, dry spot and away from direct sunlight until you slice into them. Some types of winter squash can stay fresh and firm for months—cheese pumpkins and hubbards come to mind. “I have these three carnival squashes that have kept for [over] six months,” said Gove. And if your recipe doesn’t use the entire squash, do your future self a favor: Peel, cut, and store the remaining squash in a sealed container or plastic bag so it’s ready to cook.
- Refrigerate unwashed.
- Seal in zip-top plastic bags.
As the weather warms up, some folks start to yearn for crisp salads or just lighter foods in general. But since I’m buying produce once every one or two weeks, I have to look for something that will stay crisp for a long time. Enter: escarole! I love this leafy chicory for its crunch and its slightly bitter flavor. It’s a true multitasking green that’s great in salads, sautés, soups, and even pesto. And I can attest that when stored properly it can keep for up to two weeks in the fridge. More hardy lettuce substitutes include curly endive, kale, and watercress—to name a few.
Excess moisture causes leafy greens to rot faster in the fridge. Because of this, most experts recommend keeping these vegetables unwashed until you’re ready to use them. If you prefer prewashing so your greens are ready to use, we’ve had success wrapping them in a clean towel, paper towel, or butcher paper to absorb the excess moisture. Just keep in mind that this may overdry the greens and cause some wilting, so they won’t keep quite as long. To get the longest life out of your leafy greens, remove and discard any brown or slimy leaves and then store the rest in a zip-top bag or other airtight container.
These methods also work for other head lettuces such as romaine, green and red leaf, and Bibb. But their longevity depends on the hardiness of the type of lettuce. For example: Green leaf and romaine (if you can find it) can keep for a week, but loose leaf, as well as tender Bibb and butter lettuces, have shorter shelf lives. When I buy leafy greens, I think in both the near and long term—green and red leaf for the first week and escarole for the second. And then there’s always iceberg lettuce, which can endure weeks of neglect in your crisper drawer.
If you have a head of lettuce that looks a little wilted, Gove has a solution for that: “Get a bucket or vase and put a little water [about a half-inch] in the bottom. Then trim a little off the bottom of the root and place the head of lettuce in the vase.” Keep the leaves up and the root touching the water. Loosely tent with a plastic bag and refrigerate. The lettuce should perk up in a day—assuming it wasn’t too far gone to begin with.
Celery is in a class of its own. It’ll stay crisp for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator sealed in a zip-top bag. Or you can cut the stalks into sticks and refrigerate them submerged in water, sealed in a food storage container.
Apples and pears
- Refrigerate in a plastic bag.
- Ideally, use a crisper drawer that you’ve designated for non-ethylene-sensitive fruit, such as strawberries, blueberries, navel oranges, and raspberries.
Don’t believe the Nancy Meyers movies—apples don’t belong in an oversize ceramic bowl set on an impeccable Italian marble kitchen island. At room temperature, they quickly degrade into sad, mealy fruit. Apples prefer the cold; after harvesting, producers keep them at near freezing temperatures to maintain their crispness year-round. At home, I keep them in a plastic bag in that one super-cold corner in my refrigerator. (If you haven’t already, it’s worthwhile getting to know the temperature zones in your own fridge.) The plastic bag is important because apples, like onions, release ethylene gas, which makes the other fresh produce in your fridge spoil faster.
Pears are a slightly different story. Underripe pears should stay out at room temperature in a bowl or a paper bag (I use a towel-lined tray or baking sheet). Once they soften up a bit, you can stash them in the fridge, where they’ll stay ready to eat for a couple of weeks (sometimes up to three).
- Store unripe at room temperature.
- Once ripe, refrigerate loose, and separate from apples and pears.
I think of mangoes as an investment in the future, as most of those available to me are underripe. When sorting through mangoes, look for unblemished fruit. Some will have a pink blush spot and others won’t; I don’t think that really matters. I like to let them slowly ripen on a towel-lined tray, away from other fruit (a bowl or paper bag works, too). Sometimes they’re ready to eat in a few days, but I’ve also had mangoes take two weeks to ripen. You’ll know they’re ready when the flesh softens.
- Store on the countertop for up to a week.
- Refrigerate loose for longer storage.
You can store citrus fruits out on the countertop (so you remember to use them) or keep them fresher longer in the fridge. Oranges and grapefruits aren’t ethylene-sensitive, so you can store them with apples and pears, but be sure to keep lemons and limes separate from those ethylene producers. I prefer to eat and cook with room-temperature citrus—they’re easier to juice and peel. If you have a glut of citrus on your hands, you can take the “now and later” approach: Keep citrus for the week on your counter and store the rest in the fridge.
A visual guide
This handy chart lets you quickly reference how to store all the produce we mention in this article. You can print it out and stick it in a highly-visible spot in your kitchen—like your fridge or a bulletin board.
Click the image to enlarge.
1. Emily Gove, sales strategist in fresh produce, Equal Exchange, phone interview, May 5, 2020
2. Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, The New Food Lover’s Companion (Fourth Edition), September 1, 2007
3. Harold McGee, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes, October 31, 2012
4. Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, November 23, 2004
5. Compatibility, Temperature Guidelines & Ethylene Sensitivity (PDF), Know Your Commodity, Blue Book Services
6. Ethylene in Fruits and Vegetables (PDF), Center for Community Health, UC San Diego School of Medicine