What is Fresh?
n all of its forms, it signals a beginning -- whether it's a piece of blossomed fruit, a bright complexion or a new idea. In this three part series, we will explore the ways in which freshness manifests itself in skincare, nutrition and culture and how to achieve it.
That's Fresh: Part 1
With the advent of urban farming, community-supported agriculture (CSA) and organic markets, it's easier than ever to have an abundant supply of fresh produce. But with all the care we take in growing and selecting the freshest fruits and vegetables on the shelf, or at the farmers market, when it comes to storing and keeping our food fresh -- it's out of sight and out of mind.
Americans toss out a fourth of all the produce they buy due to spoilage. Families waste 470 pounds of food per year, and nationally we dump $43 billion worth of food a year; according to a 2002 study by researchers at the University of Arizona. Imagine the sheer volume of food that would be saved just by preserving the produce we bring into our homes.
There's truth to the well-worn expression, "one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch." What is the mysterious force that lurks within our crisper drawers, that causes our produce to go bad even after a few days? In a word, ethylene -- a gaseous, natural plant hormone that is released as food ripens. Ethylene can be a foe or friend to storing food depending on what produce is stored together. It's a malleable force that's used to accelerate the ripening of food before it hits the markets, and the mechanism that can ripen a fruit trapped in paper bag. Some foods give off higher levels of ethylene than others, rendering certain produce to be incompatible when stored together.
The Origin of Fruit Ripening
Manipulating the natural ripening process has been done for thousands of years, even though the forces behind it were unknown. Ancient Egyptians would slash open the figs they harvested to stimulate ripening, while Chinese farmers would store pears in closed rooms with incense burning. Later, researches realized that high temperatures and cutting open the produce could trigger the production of ethylene, and that produce naturally releases the gas on its own.
While refrigeration is the primary way to extend the shelf life of food, some produce benefits from staying out of the fridge entirely. Never refrigerate potatoes, onions, winter squash or garlic. Store them separately in a cool, dry place and they can last up to a month without spoiling and intermingling flavors. Keeping food intact also prevents premature decay. When fruits and vegetables are broken apart, their cells are broken down, and microorganisms such as mold starts to form. Simple steps like keeping the stem in an apple or the pit of an avocado in can help preserve food even after it is sliced open. Even one spoiled apple can wreak havoc on the rest of a produce supply, as mold proliferates rapidly and contaminates anything nearby, so it's best to toss any spoiled food immediately.
Preservation through Segregation
The first step to giving produce a longer freshness, is to separate the fruits and vegetables that emit ethylene from the produce that’s sensitive to it. Leafy vegetables are particularly sensitive to ethylene, even in low quantities and will turn limp and yellow when stored next to gas-producing fruit.
Gas-Releasing Produce to Refrigerate:
Apples, Apricots, Cantaloupe, Figs, Honeydew
Gas-Releasing Produce to NOT Refrigerate:
Avocados, Bananas, Nectarines, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Tomatoes
Produce Sensitive to Ethylene:
Ripe bananas, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Lettuce and other leafy greens, Parsley, Peas, Peppers, Squash, Sweet potatoes, Watermelon
In addition to keeping food intact when storing it, produce is highly sensitive to moisture. We have been conditioned to wash produce before storing it, but in reality some foods benefit from this and some do not. When it comes to berries, the cardinal rule is to leave them unwashed until the moment of consumption, but there is a trick that sidesteps this. By washing berries in a solution of vinegar and water (followed by a water rinse and air drying), berries can last up to weeks in the fridge. Vinegar works to eliminate the inherent mold and bacteria that naturally clings to berries. Conversely, leafy greens benefit from being washed before storage, but need to be properly dried before refrigerating. For all produce that's headed for the refrigerator, cleaning off any dirt and sorting out spoiled parts is essential for preventing spoilage.
In reality, the intricacies of food storage are simple. Eat the perishables first, and leave the sturdier fruits and vegetables for later. The freshness of berries is fleeting, while apples and oranges have a tough exterior to maintain their freshness. When food starts to "respire" and ripen, look to the stove and oven rather than the waste bin. Fruit tarts and soup stocks are the procrastinators stock and trade. Most importantly, shop smartly. Dry goods are designed for stockpiling, while produce is about enjoying the tastes of the season.