Want to keep that farm-fresh produce fresher longer? There are really only three things you need to know: Moisture kills, ethylene is the enemy, and as with real estate, location is everything.
Start with the freshest produce possible. Avoid fruits and vegetables with bruises, soft spots or perforated skins. These blemishes encourage the growth of mold and bacteria, leading to quick spoilage.
Moisture also speeds up spoiling, so resist the urge to wash fruits and veggies ahead of time. Berries in particular are prone to a quick decay once moisture hits. Wash blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries right before you plan to eat them.
If, for convenience sake, you do choose to wash and prep produce ahead of time, give fruits and vegetables plenty of time to dry thoroughly before they hit the fridge or pantry, especially if you're storing them in plastic bags and containers.
For delicate produce like lettuce, greens and fresh herbs, take extra insurance against spoilage from moisture. Chop the ends off, roll the leaves loosely in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and store them in an unzipped plastic bag.
Many fruits and vegetables emit ethylene, a gas that initiates -- and accelerates -- the ripening process, while others are highly sensitive to the ripening agent.
Apples, bananas, peaches, pears, avocados and tomatoes emit high levels of the potentially destructive gas, as do apricots, nectarines and muskmelons like cantaloupe and honeydew. Even dried fruits like figs and prunes can be potentially damaging.
Store these ethylene-emitters with ethylene-sensitive produce like leafy greens, fresh peas and green beans, and you have a recipe for spoilage. The gas accelerates the aging process, leading to changes in texture, color, firmness and flavor.
Your refrigerator acts as one big ethylene trap. You can't see it or smell it -- and it's not harmful to humans -- but even tiny amounts can cause produce to go bad before its time. Proper packaging will go a long way in protecting produce from this damaging gas.
In most cases, produce packaging is designed to aid in extending its shelf life, so keep the bags and containers your fruits and veggies come in. Citrus fruits, for example, do best when stored in their original mesh bags. Similarly, grape tomatoes and other mini varieties keep best when stored in breathable containers, like the plastic boxes they are packaged in.
The goal is to give the produce "room to breathe." Tightly sealed plastic containers trap the air -- and the ethylene gas. Covered glass containers lined with paper towels are a better choice.
Plastic bags should be perforated to encourage airflow and the dissipation of ethylene gas. Many plastic bags found in the produce section are already perforated, like those that grapes are packed in, but there's a quick DIY solution: Using a knife, simply slit a few holes in zip-top bags.
Pre-sliced produce, however, requires different handling. Once sliced, fruits and vegetables quickly lose moisture, and tightly sealed bags and containers are the best bet for retaining that moisture and discouraging the growth of bacteria.
*Location is Everything
Contrary to common sense, the fridge isn't always the best place for produce. In fact, some produce should never hit the fridge, as the cooler temperature ruins the flavor and texture.
Tomatoes are the most likely to take a hit. Store them on the counter with the stem down. Likewise, don't store potatoes, onions, winter squash and garlic in the fridge. A cool, dark pantry will be sufficient.
Store unripe fruit on the counter and then move it to the fridge -- even the bananas. The peels will turn brown from the drop in temperature, but it won't affect the flesh or flavor. Citrus fruits, uncut melons and mangoes can also be left out on the counter if desired.
Most other fruits and veggies will benefit from the cooler temperatures your refrigerator provides, assuming you use the crispers properly.
Adjust the humidity scales on the crisper drawers. Keep one at high humidity and one at low. Apples, melons, citrus fruits, onions and sweet potatoes will do better in the low humidity drawer, while leafy greens, herbs, green beans, celery and berries prefer higher humidity.