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How to keep fruit and veggies fresh longer, cut waste and save money

Fresh strawberries and peppermint

Don’t you love summertime? Supermarket produce bins and farmers markets burst with farm-ripe, local foods: Juicy strawberries, fragrant herbs, tender greens for salads and a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables to delight the senses right through Fall.

As much as we love fresh garden goodies at our house, if we’re not careful, by the fourth day, we’re already losing significant quantities to spoilage. Moldy berries. Slimy bok choy. Yellow broccoli.

Fresh strawberries and peppermint

Fresh strawberries and peppermint

How often does this happen to you? Kudos if your answer is never or almost never! Share your secrets in the comments below, won’t you?

But if you do find yourself throwing out too much produce, well, don’t you hate that? Might as well throw five dollar bills into the compost bin.

No longer! I’ve tried a lot of methods for keeping produce fresh and flavorful. This one works the best.

The trick? Rinsing them in plain water to remove the dirt, then soaking briefly in a salty bath, followed by a rinse and a second soak in a dilute vinegar bath, before spritzing them under the tap one last time. Sound like a lot of work? Not as easy as tossing those plastic bags in the crisper and forgetting about them, that’s for sure. Nor is it as tedious as it seems.

While your berries, herbs and veggies soak, put away the rest of your groceries, brew a nice cup of tea, or catch up on your reading. The bit of extra trouble pays off. You can shave dollars off your grocery budget, and get more of those tasty foods and wholesome nutrition into your family.

Jump ahead to the how-to segment, or read on to learn why and how this works.

Why salt and vinegar?

You might wonder about the salt and vinegar baths. Do they really do any good? First, I’ll share my personal experience. Then I’ll share a couple of studies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommendations.

Radishes, green onions and carrots soaking in salt bath

Radishes, green onions and carrots soaking in salt bath

The salt baths started with my mom, when I was a kid, and continue to this day, decades later.

After hosing off the garden dirt, Mom (Great Granny Annie to you grandkids reading this) plunges her fresh-picked garden produce into a tub of salty water. She says it helps kill the bugs–microscopic and creepy crawly.

Is she right about that? Well yes. Salt is antimicrobial. I’ll show you the science to prove it in just a minute.

But it’s the bigger bugs that keep me doing the salt-water baths. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found an earwig, little white worm (larvae), stink bug or beetle floating on top of the salt water after a short soak. They don’t like it, so they migrate to the top. They’re so much easier to pick off, once they’ve floated up. If you’re squeamish, lift them with a strainer.

Then there’s the vinegar. Some years ago, someone told me that a vinegar bath helped keep their veggies and fruits fresh longer. I tried that by itself, and found no added benefit over the salt water, but when I followed the salt water bath with a mild bath of vinegar and water, my produce did last longer, so I added that step–when I’m not too tired after shopping, that is.

I’m always glad when I’ve taken the time, because our goodies really do keep longer in the crisper after the dual baths, up to a week for delicate perishables such as strawberries and blackberries. Isn’t that amazing?

But do we really need these baths? Despite my anecdotal experience, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says probably not.

Several researchers, however, found evidence suggesting otherwise.

We’ll start with what the FDA has to say about it.

How does the FDA tell us to clean our produce?

According to the FDA,  fresh, cold tap water is all we need to clean our fruits and vegetables. They offer this video how-to. I recommend taking a few minutes to watch their take on the safest ways to buy, handle, store and serve produce.

So why bother with the salt and vinegar baths?

Turns out, Science looked into them and discovered they work a lot better than plain water.

According to a study cited on PubMed.gov, table salt is antibacterial on fresh produce, as is every day apple cider vinegar, which has the added benefit of killing some viruses.

In that study, a team of researchers led by J. Lukasik, found that a solution of water and two percent table salt reduced harmful bacteria by ninety percent.

Similarly, a solution of water and ten percent vinegar (they don’t specify which kind) reduced the studied bacteria by ninety percent, the same percentage as the table salt, and reduced the studied viruses by ninety-five percent.

A few of the viruses and bacteria studied: Polio, Salmonella, and E. coli. Those scientists tackled some pretty tough germs.

There’s more. In a 2003 study, food safety researchers Parnell and Harris showed that a vinegar solution killed more salmonella bacteria than water alone. See Reducing Salmonella on Apples with Practices Commonly Used by Consumers, published in the Journal of Food Protection.

Apples and bananas in vinegar bath

Apples and bananas in vinegar bath

Other researchers also tested ordinary table vinegar on various fruits and vegetables. They studied its effects on several common food pathogens as well.

Cleaning with Vinegar (pdf), published by The Vinegar Institute (Wait, there’s actually a vinegar institute? Who knew?) cites many studies, and gives us a brief overview of the results in each study.

Disappointingly, none of the citations contain live links, so we’ll all have to schlep to the library or university to read the abstracts and dig deeper, but you can get the gist in this easy-to-read fact sheet.

What about rough-skinned produce, like cantaloupe?

Have you ever rinsed a cantaloupe off under the faucet, then sliced into it and noshed it on the spot, juice running down your arm? Tastes so good! Well, these days, cantaloupe can bear pathogens that make us sick, pathogens that mere rinsing under water may not wash away.

In 2005, Parnell, Harris and a third researcher, Suslow, studied the effects of cleaning cantaloupe with plain water and a scrub brush, compared to cleaning them with a dilute chlorine solution and a scrub brush.

Surprisingly, the plain water and scrub brush actually spread and multiplied the salmonella. When they cleaned the cantaloupe with the dilute chlorine solution, the bacteria decreased.

The researchers didn’t test vinegar this time, but they did caution us to be sure to scrub melons thoroughly under running water for a time, and to be careful to sanitize our scrub brushes and any utensils used so we’re not transferring pathogens from one fruit to another.

For a closer look at the results of the Harris and company study, see Reducing Salmonella on cantaloupes and honeydew melons using wash practices applicable to post harvest handling, food service, and consumer preparation.

Just a reminder, since I mentioned chlorine and vinegar in fairly close succession, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER mix chlorine bleach and vinegar. Together, they produce a colorless, odorless gas that can kill you.

How close is my method to the researcher-tested methods?

Fairly close with the salt bath. Not so much with the vinegar. I don’t measure the ratio of salt or vinegar to the water when preparing the baths. Generally, I use two-to-three tablespoons of sea salt in about a gallon of water, swish it around to dissolve it, and drop my fresh produce in to soak for ten minutes.

Then I rinse it off and dump it into a new bowl filled with about a gallon of water and a glub or two of apple cider vinegar. Mine is Bragg’s, with live cultures.

2% of 128 ounces is 2.56 ounces, or about 2-3 tablespoons per gallon of water

2% of 128 ounces is 2.56 ounces, or about 2-3 tablespoons per gallon
(.02 x 128 = 2.56)

If I’m doing the math right, I’m probably using close to the right amount of table salt.

Remember that the Lukasik study cited above used a two-percent salt-water solution. Two percent of 128 ounces (one gallon) is 2.56 ounces, and we usually think of a tablespoon as equal to about an ounce.

So you can see how unscientific my process is, since I just fill a big bowl with about a gallon of water and dump in a few tablespoons of sea salt.

The same is true of the vinegar. I fill the same bowl with water and add a couple of glubs of vinegar–maybe half a cup. I’d have to use about a cup and a half of vinegar if I were going for ten percent vinegar, as the scientists did in their study.

Still, this method helps keep my produce fresh longer, so I use it.

One more benefit to the salt and vinegar baths

The baths also seem to have a re-hydrating effect. Among my produce today, a gorgeous bunch of colorful radishes–purples, reds and whites.

The foliage was quite wilted. I fully expected to discard it. I wish I’d taken a photograph of the pale, limp leaves before the baths so you could see the difference. They re-hydrated beautifully, turning dark green and looking too good not to eat. We added some to our dinner salad for a spicy kick. Dee-lish! So glad I didn’t discard those yummy greens. Incidentally, they’re tasty in soups too.

These leaves were limp and pale before the baths

These leaves were limp and pale before the baths

Ready for some step-by-step instructions with photos? Here you go.

How to keep your produce fresh longer with salt and vinegar water baths

Here’s how to do it, step by step, starting with the tools and materials you need. On this day, I had a bundle of fresh peppermint leaves and a couple of quarts of gorgeous organic strawberries.

Gather a few simple tools and ingredients

Assemble these common kitchen items and you will be all set to clean and prepare your fresh berries, herbs and veggies for storage.

  • Sea salt
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • 5-7 quart stainless steel mixing bowl
  • Large stainless steel colander
  • Large, clean organic cotton dish towel, or two or three

Instructions:

1. Fill a large mixing bowl with water and 2-3 tablespoons sea salt. Swish with your (clean) hands until the salt dissolves.

Add 2-3 tablespoons salt to about a gallon of water

Dissolve 2-3 tablespoons salt in about a gallon of water

2. Add fresh, rinsed berries and any tender herbs or greens and let soak for 10 minutes, giving a twirl to the water now and then.

Berries and herbs in bowl of salted water

Berries and herbs in bowl of salted water

3. Drain the strawberries and herbs into a large colander, rinse and refill the bowl. This time, omit the salt and add a couple of glubs of apple cider vinegar. (I’m using a tablespoon here because it was easier to manage with the camera than a glass bottle!) Stir to distribute the vinegar, and add the berries and greens. Soak 10 minutes, again swishing occasionally.

Add 1-2 glubs or several tablespoons vinegar to a fresh bowl of water

Add 1-2 glubs or several tablespoons vinegar to a fresh bowl of water

4. Rinse the strawberries and herbs under a gentle stream of water and allow to drain.

Rinse the berries and herbs under a gentle stream of water

Rinse the berries and herbs under a gentle stream of water

5. Lay the herbs out on a clean, dry cotton towel. Do the same with the strawberries. Roll the towels gently and let rest a few minutes, allowing the towel to absorb more moisture.

Lay the herbs and berries on clean towels and gently roll up to absorb moisture

Lay the herbs and berries on clean towels and gently roll up to absorb moisture

 

6. Serve the strawberries as usual, or store them in the refrigerator in a sealed glass container for up to one week.

Place the herbs in a jar of fresh water, covered with a clean, clear produce bag to help retain moisture. Store in the fridge and use as needed over the next week. Refresh the water every day.

Store the berries in a glass container and the herbs in a jar of water in the fridge

Store the berries in a glass container and the herbs in a jar of water in the fridge

If you’re fortunate to have a set of Pyrex bowls like mine, you can vent the strawberries, to keep a little air circulating around them and let excess moisture escape. In the photograph above, you can see a white button on the lid. That button lifts and swivels to open a vent, or I can remove it entirely to open two vents close together. Neat, eh?

That’s one way to cut food waste and save your grocery bill

Don’t take my word for it. Give it a test run! Check the list of tools and ingredients you need, and try it on some produce you bought today.

Use this method with all your fresh fruits and veggies. Not only will it keep your produce fresher longer, cutting food waste, but you’ll save money too–no more throwing the equivalent of five dollar bills in the compost bin. Who wouldn’t like to cut their grocery bill each month?

And if you’re concerned about global warming and quality of life for our kids and grandkids down the road, reducing food waste helps the planet in dozens of ways. That’s a topic for another day.

How do you keep the fresh produce you bring home? Will you try this method?

11 Comments

  1. Pingback: How to make an eye-catching, mouth-watering stir-fry supper fast | YayYay's Kitchen

  2. Fascinating! I wash my lettuce leaves as I use them, but I wrap the head in damp paper towels and put it back in the plastic bag which seems to help keep it crisp. Your method reminded me of the chlorine solution that an American friend used in Mexico for all her produce before she ate it. Helped to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb, before we gave up paper towels (it’s a one-use/throw-away thing for me), I did something similar with leafy greens. It works! I believe the scientists advised against using chlorine, but I can see how it might be up for consideration where the water is questionable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a little basket from Copper Canyon by the sink, and every paper napkin or towel that has only barely been used goes in there to be reused to wipe out messy plates or pans before washing them. That way I get two uses of the paper products, and use less hot water and soap on the washing up. So the towels used for the lettuce or chard will be dried and reused before being thrown away.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Who knew? It’s amazing I’ve never done this and never gotten sick from using more than just a water rinse. I’ve also followed the instructions not to rinse produce until it’s time to eat it. This does sound like a good idea, as long as one dries delicate foods and greens thoroughly before storage. I’ve had many greens go bad because they were wet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many people don’t get sick. I know families who don’t bother washing their produce at all. I’m not so lucky, so I have to be vigilant and careful.

      Until I discovered this method, I didn’t wash things until I was ready to use them either, and yes, I do want my greens to be relatively dry before I store them.

      Like

  4. melrootsnwrites says

    I’ve been following a healthy food path for 25 year. I’ve never heard of this simple solution to making produce keep longer. I couldn’t even count the times I’ve thrown out slimy radishes and withered squash because I forgot to cook it. What a waste of money!

    Next time I buy fresh vegetables I’m going to give the salt soak a try. Then, I’ll see how the vinegar goes.

    Thanks so much for this suggestion and the easy to follow directions! Anything that saves a bit of money and keeps produce fresher is worth a try.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It does seem like a lot more work than the old days when you rinsed under tap water when you were ready to use, but then, we may have had less to worry about. These days we hear more often about illness related to food production, so it makes sense to take greater precaution. Well written, Kate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sharon. Indeed, it seems we do have more to be concerned about these days, where food safety is concerned. I’ll be writing about that soon.

      Like

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