In these unprecedented times, we're all on a mission to get the biggest bang for our buck when it comes to every grocery item we buy. While picking out dried, canned, and frozen goods that last is a no-brainer, when it comes to fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs that will stay good for a while, it's hard to know exactly what to buy during our infrequent but efficient trips to the store. Chef Barry Tonkinson, the director of culinary research and development at the Institute of Culinary Education, has all the insights on which produce stays fresh longest and how to store those items to make them last.
Onions, garlic, potatoes & squash — one to three months
According to chef Tonkinson, the produce that's going to stay in fighting shape longest are onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash. If you opt to store them in a cool, dry, and dark place, onions and garlic can last for around three months. However, if you've ever kept a head of garlic around for a bit, you may have noticed the cloves starting to sprout green shoots. Tonkinson says that's not a problem. It's still safe to cook with those cloves, but he advises chopping the green sprouts off before you do.
The same goes for potatoes. "The things you have to look out for with potatoes is sprouting, black spots, and shriveling," the chef explains. "If sprouting occurs, remove the sprouts before cooking the potato — just peel the potato down until the sprout is removed." As long as you keep an eye out for those developments, potatoes can be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place for a month or two.
Squash, too, can last a few months. To stretch squash's life, make sure to store it outside of the refrigerator, and don't dice it up until you're ready to actually cook with it.
Cabbage, carrots & celery — two to four weeks
Produce that hangs out outside of the fridge aren't the only veggies that Chef Tonkinson reaches for during a bulk buy. Cabbage, carrots, and celery can also last a long time as long as they're stored properly inside the refrigerator. "You have to make sure that these vegetables are able to breathe," he says. "If they can't breathe, they're going to deteriorate very, very quickly, and they're going to start to mold." That means if you want this produce to stay good longer, don't prep it ahead of time and throw it into a food storage container. Though the prep step might help with fridge organization, it won't do the veggies any favors.
Cabbage's long life and versatility are likely responsible for the cabbage renaissance you may have noticed happening right now. Tonkinson recommends stretching out the vegetable's life even further by turning it into sauerkraut. According to him, it only takes two ingredients to make kraut — salt and cabbage — but you can add other items you have on hand. The chef recommends carrots, beets, ginger, and caraway seeds in his "funky" sauerkraut recipe. After the fermentation process is complete, this creation can last months in the fridge.
Kale, broccoli rabe & other hearty greens — two weeks
Hearty greens can hold up longer than other leafy salad greens, especially when they're stored properly and are able to breathe. However, one bad leaf can spoil a whole bunch, so keep an eye on your bundles. If you notice a leaf starting to turn, remove it immediately.
Asparagus, zucchini, cucumber, broccoli & avocado — two days to one week
If you're trying to avoid going to the grocery store more than once every couple of weeks, the culinary research and development director recommends being especially careful about asparagus, zucchini, cucumbers, and avocados. "Asparagus will last a couple of days, but with asparagus, the season really matters," Tonkinson says. "You have to make sure you're using it seasonally or else it will have traveled for weeks before it gets to you." So for asparagus, stick to spring and cook it within a couple of days.
Zucchini lasts four or five days in the refrigerator, according to the chef, and cucumbers can last about a week in the fridge. Broccoli will be good for about a week in the refrigerator, but Tonkinson recommends keeping an eye out to make sure that the florets don't turn yellow and the stems don't become limp. If either happens, you don't want to use that broccoli.
As for avocados, it depends on how ripe they are when you buy them. "If you buy them just about ready, they're going to last four or five days at room temperature," he shares.
Fresh herbs — about one week
Chef Tonkinson knows that you might have a problem making fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, chives last a long time in the fridge, but he uses a trick to keep them fresh. "You can wrap them in a wet paper towel and put them in the refrigerator," he explains. "The refrigerator as a machine removes moisture from things. With this trick, the fridge will remove moisture from the paper towel instead of the herbs inside." When using this method, the chef recommends checking on the herbs every couple of days. If you notice the paper towel has dried out, simply re-wet it.
No matter what produce you choose to pick up during your trips to the supermarket to stock up, the Institute of Culinary Education chef emphasizes the importance of storing vegetables away from fruits. That's because of the ethylene gas that fruits release. "If you want to ripen up a banana or avocado, you can put it in a bag so it will be surrounded by its own ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent," Tonkinson explains. "It's good if you want to ripen that banana or avocado, but if you put these products next to other products, you're going to have problems. Those fruits are going to increase the ripening pace of all of those vegetables that you don't want to ripen quickly." That means it's time to do away with that catch-all produce bowl filled with loose onions, potatoes, bananas, and avocados, and get your pantry organized.