Colorful organically grown vegetables displayed for sale at the Maine Organic Farmers' Market.

Counter or fridge? Here’s how to store fruits and veggies for maximum freshness

From wrapping leafy greens in paper towels to storing mushrooms in paper bags, these tips from food scientists and chefs will help your perishables stay fresh for longer.

How you store your food—on the counter, in the refrigerator, in plastic, or wrapped in paper towel—can keep it fresh, longer, and prevent food from being wasted.
Photograph by ROBBIE GEORGE, Nat Geo Image Collection

It’s one of life’s simple pleasures to inhale the intoxicating aroma of fresh basil, or to bite into a ripe cherry tomato just plucked from the vine and bursting with earthy sweetness and flavor.

But keeping these perishables at peak freshness once they reach your home is where the real challenge begins. 

Store your fresh food incorrectly and you might end up throwing it in the trash, a loss that amounts to a massive environmental problem. 

Every year, over a third of the food grown globally is thrown away. In the U.S., food waste is on the rise, according to recent data from ReFED, a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste. Wasted food accounted for about 38 percent of the total food supply in 2021, worth roughly $444 billion, according to ReFED.

For an American family of four, the average value of produce that is thrown away or discarded is close to $1,600 annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

These tried-and-true methods can help you maximize the taste, texture, and shelf-life of your fruits and vegetables and prevent food waste.

Navigating the refrigerator 

In the refrigerator, a range of conditions can influence the freshness of your produce, including temperature, how much water is available for microorganisms to grow, humidity, ethylene gas production, airflow, and packaging, explains Brian Chau, a food scientist and self-described fungal fanatic who runs Chau Time, a food consulting firm.

Take a stroll down the produce aisle of your local grocery store. You might notice that a lot of products are insulated in a plastic sheath or wrapper, like mushrooms. Mushrooms are about 70 to 90 percent water, and if you store them in a plastic environment, condensation forms. 

“By storing mushrooms in plastic, you are actually increasing the rate of decay, because they are constantly in an environment that is very moist,” says Chau. “What you want to do when you get home is transfer your mushrooms to a paper bag, because paper is more porous.”

And because a paper bag creates less humid conditions, you are slowing the aging process and keeping your mushrooms dry without stripping them of their moisture content.

Another popular storage hack involves wrapping leafy greens in paper towels and storing them in the refrigerator to extend their shelf life. 

“What I actually do is I take some of that paper towel and then wrap it around the lettuce, and take that bundle and then wrap it loosely in aluminum foil,” says Chau. “You're allowing some surface area to be wicked off, but not too much that it becomes a dehydrated piece of lettuce.” 

A similar approach can be taken with aging herbs.

When fresh, you can trim the stems of the herbs and place them in a jar of water to extend their shelf life. 

However, once they start  to show signs of decay, Chau recommends lining a high-walled aluminum tray with a paper towel and layering herbs on top, followed by another paper towel topped by a final layer of aluminum foil. 

This lasagna-like layering of herbs, paper towels, and aluminum helps control humidity and ensure freshness.  

“You're able to mitigate airflow because you have higher walls with this aluminum tray, while keeping everything cold, " says Chau. “At the same time, what you're trying to do is you’re allowing a little bit of the moisture to escape while reducing and eliminating condensation, which leads to decay.”

On the counter

Food storage in room temperature environments varies by where you live and the time of year. If you are located in a tropical or very humid environment, this can increase the rate of decay simply because there's more moisture trying to enter the food product, which increases spoilage.

And while the lion’s share of fruits and vegetables can be stored in the refrigerator, but keep your onions and garlic in a dry, well-ventilated environment out of the fridge. The frigid temperatures can cause garlic to mold, and in colder temperatures, onion starches turn to sugar more quickly, leaving them soggy and soft. 

For tomatoes, how ripe they were when picked determines if they should be kept on the counter or in the fridge. Tomatoes are oftentimes harvested unripened, so that between the farm and grocery store they ripen over time, ideally reaching peak ripeness by the time they arrive in grocery stores, explains Chau. He recommends putting fully ripened tomatoes in the crisper drawer, which is designed to keep produce fresher.

“Another thing I like to do with tomatoes that are picked off the vine is actually invert the tomato and cover up the spot where the vine was attached,” he says. That is the point where it is most vulnerable to moisture loss, you can use a food-grade tape, wax, or even a paper towel to cover this vulnerable spot and extend its shelf-life.”  

Life-shortening ethylene gas

Finally, take note of what foods you’re storing together.

A lot of fruits and vegetables release ethylene gas, an odorless, colorless gas that occurs naturally in produce and is known as the “fruit ripening hormone.” The most well-known producers are bananas, but cantaloupe, tomatoes, and avocados are also ethylene producing heavyweights. 

Some fruits and vegetables will produce ethylene gas to trigger their own ripening process, but if nearby veggies like carrots, broccoli, and cucumbers are exposed to the gas, they will start to age and decay. That’s why it’s important to keep some fruits and veggies separate. 

“You don't want to store apples and bananas together because it's a cyclical loop in which they'll age much faster together,” says Chau. “But, if you put apples with berries in general, then you don't necessarily have that much accelerated rate of degradation or decay.”

Saving food with fermentation

Food fermentation is the process of using microbes, such as yeasts or bacteria, to preserve food and change its taste and texture. It's been an effective way to preserve food for millennia. 

Ancient Koreans used the chill of winter to ferment vegetables by burying them in the ground in earthenware ceramic jars called onggi. In Babylonia, beer was made by fermenting dates with water. And in Anatolia, milk stored in sheep or goat-skin bags was fermented to create yogurt. Today, restaurants—such as three-Michelin-star Danish restaurant Noma—are using these same tactics to prevent food waste.

“The fermentation lab is the last room before you get to the garbage room,” says Kevin Jeung, chef of research and production at Noma’s Fermentation Lab. “We're kind of the last bastion to use an ingredient before it's discarded.” 

One example of how Noma’s Fermentation Lab prevents waste is through a partnership with their satellite bakery, Hart Bageri. Rather than throw away the rye bread that is not sold by the end of day, the bakery freezes and stockpiles surplus to send to Noma’s Fermentation Lab where it is ground down and seasoned with barley koji and salt. After fermenting for a few months, the bread takes on a new form as a meaty, sweet, rich miso paste. The lab then gives this fermented product back to the bakery to add to future loaves of bread. 

Unsure of where to start with fermenting foods at home? Jeung recommends starting with simple projects, like curing your own olives in salt brine. 

“I like to think of fermentation not as a trend but as a reconnection to our past and to nature,” writes Barry Tonkinson, vice president of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education. “When fermenting, you are simply following a framework for nature’s magic and on the other side, given patience, is a whole world of culinary opportunities ready to be explored.”

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