Store Your Fruits and Veggies this Fall
By Leah Lancione
If you grow your own fruits and vegetables, or even if you don’t have a garden but like to eat locally-grown produce, it’s best to harvest and eat it when it is fresh and in season. Consequently, it’s a smart idea to store this fresh produce for consumption throughout the Fall and Winter months when it may not be available in stores. Done properly, storing ripe fruit and vegetables is more cost-effective and even healthier for you. Also, food harvested at peak maturity from the garden usually has better flavor and a higher nutritional value.
When harvesting your own produce for storage, or buying it locally in season, there are certain guidelines to follow to make sure it doesn’t spoil and retains the highest quality. Since fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of nutrients and phytochemicals, it makes sense that their nutritional content is greatest at peak maturity and not after traveling across country in a truck for days or sitting on grocery store shelves. Here are a few tips provided by the Cooperative Extension to ensure the fruits and vegetables you choose to store don’t spoil:
1.Harvest or purchase fruits and vegetables at peak maturity or as near as possible.
2.Only use produce that is free from all visible evidence of disease.
3.Don’t use any fruit or vegetable that has severe insect damage.
4.Handle food carefully after harvest so that it is not cut or bruised.
5.Leave an inch or more of stem on most vegetables to reduce water loss and prevent infection.
6.Use late-maturing varieties better suited to storage.
Check out the Cooperative Extension’s tables that categorizes vegetables and fruits based on their specific storing conditions at www.gardening.cornell.edu/factsheets/vegetables/storage.pdf The tables provide the appropriate temperature, relative humidity percentage and even length of storage per vegetable or fruit. For example, you can store apples and pears, under the right conditions, for up to six or seven months while lettuce, watermelon and sweet peppers only last two to three weeks. This is precisely why some folks opt to can food for later consumption, but that’s another story. There are methods other than simply storing your food. “Canning, freezing, dehydration, pickling, fermentation and other methods of preservation are carried out with the goal of delivering processed products that are safe and retain desirable quality attributes similar to those of fresh products,” says Diane M. Barrett, director of the Center for Excellence in Fruit and Vegetable Quality, University of California, Davis. She explains that “nutrient retention” is optimized if fruits and vegetables are handled with care and stored at high relative humidity and refrigerated.
Though most folks don’t have a root cellar any more where you could store crops all Winter long, certain fruits and vegetables picked in their prime can be stored in your basement if you can keep the storage area at 32-38 degrees Fahrenheit. For example, the Department of Horticulture at Purdue says that “home basements are ideal for ripening tomatoes and for short-term storage of potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions. For short-term storage (three to six weeks) or ripening, partition off a north or east side of the basement, preferably one without heating pipes or ducts. Choose a location with at least one window for cooling, but prevent light from coming in the windows during the storage period.” For more, go to www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/ho-125.pdf The department recommends keeping the storage area clean, getting rid of any vegetables or fruits that have signs of decay and to clean all containers at least once a year. If you have a second refrigerator, this method of preservation may be more costly, but it is suitable as long as the proper temperature conditions are kept and the door is kept closed as much as possible.
Once you have a handle on the correct food storage settings and you’ve decided which fruits or vegetables to store, the only thing left to do is to purchase all the proper utensils, packing materials and containers to get started. The following is a list of some of the necessary items:
•Paper towels for dusting off dirt and debris.
•Clean gloves for gentle handling of produce.
•Food-grade fruit and vegetable bins or containers that don’t have toxic chemicals, i.e., no plastics with BPA or garbage bags.
•An old dresser to store root vegetables (www.motherearthnews.com).
For more information and valuable advice on storing food, seasonal tips and other preservation methods, visit the National Center for Food Preservation at http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/store.html