Fresh food 101: How to buy, wash and store fruits, vegetables and herbs

Pick and process even new-to-you produce like a pro, and prolong its freshness too

Pick and process even new-to-you produce like a pro, and prolong its freshness too

illustration of three cutting boards with fresh vegetables on them
(Illustration: Flo Leung)

You might be the person whose grocery list always consists of the same five vegetables, or someone who wants to eat more greens. You might pride yourself on having a refined palate, yet pass over a new-to-you fruit at the market even though it looks intriguing. 

Many of us stick to our go-to groceries because we're intimidated by produce we simply don't know what to do with. But don't let that stop you from trying the new and exciting flavours available to you. 

We've put together a guide for how to choose, wash and store fruits and vegetables. It won't cover every kind of produce out there, rather how to deal with four general types: leafy greens and herbs, produce with no skin (think mushrooms), produce with edible skin, and produce with skin you peel. For the most part, you'd treat each of these a bit differently.

Here's how to navigate the produce aisle and bring home that unfamiliar bunch of greens, fuzzy vegetable or intriguing fruit you've been eyeing.

What to look for when you're shopping

Choosing the freshest fruits and vegetables means they're not only going to taste better, but they'll last longer too. 

One thing to keep in mind is that larger isn't always better when it comes to produce. For example, smaller bitter melons are usually not as harsh as larger ones. 

Look for perky bunches of leafy vegetables like lettuce, bok choy and herbs, ideally with no wilting. If the roots are attached, inspect them for rot and try to avoid any with slime since it spreads quickly. Yellowing or browning leaves are a sign they're not so fresh. But don't be deterred by just a few or by any holes you may see — they won't affect the flavour. Bug-nibbling is common, especially with organic produce grown without pesticides.

Inspect the surface of fruits and vegetables without skin, like mushrooms and broccoli. Avoid any that are discoloured. 

Look for mushrooms that are neither moist nor dehydrated. If you're able to pick one up and smell it, the aroma should be earthy and even a little sweet.

Choose fiddleheads and rapini that are compact and crisp with a vibrant green colour. 

Also inspect the surfaces of fruits and vegetables with skin — whether edible, like on an eggplant, or a layer you'd remove, as with burdock and melons. You're looking for the outside to be free from bruising or browning, except for plantains, which become sweeter and more delicious as they develop dark spots, and easier to peel too! 

illustration of fresh produce on cutting boards and in a bowl
(Illustration: Flo Leung)

Berries like raspberries and strawberries don't ripen after picking, so avoid any with white or green patches as they were picked too soon and didn't have time to sweeten.

Saskatoon berries do continue to ripen at room temp after picking, so it's OK if they're not yet a deep purple when you buy them. 

Smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables like persimmons should look shiny. And tubers and root vegetables, like potatoes and turnips, should ideally be free of sprouts, which are a sign they're past their prime. 

If you see vegetables like carrots and daikon with lively green tops intact, reach for those since it means they were picked recently and are fresh. 

It can be tricky to judge the freshness of foods you peel, for instance pineapples, mangoes and kiwi. But they should smell sweet when they're ripe, and never sour or fermented. Melons and squash should feel heavy for their size. Lychees and rambutans are ready to eat when they have a vivid hue and feel slightly soft and springy.

How to wash and tend to all kinds of produce 

Properly washing vegetables and fruit as soon as you bring them home can prolong their life (not to mention make cooking more enjoyable). However, there are some you should wash just before you're ready to use them because moisture can cause them to deteriorate. And produce should always be dry before storing.

Wash leafy vegetables and herbs by separating the leaves and plunging them into a large bowl of cold water and swishing them around a few times with your hand. Lift the leaves out of the water — the dirt will settle to the bottom. 

Work with small batches of leaves, and change the water and repeat the process until there's no more dirt or sand. Then dry them well in a salad spinner or by letting them air-dry on a clean tea towel, patting delicate leaves carefully.

illustration of fresh greens in a bowl of water on the left and the greens on a kitchen towel on the right
(Illustration: Flo Leung)

Before washing, trim the ends of edible stems on produce like bok choy, and remove tougher stems like the ones on mustard greens. It's best to separate the leaves first so you can get at all the dirt, but if you're keeping tender stems together, like those of baby bok choy, be sure to pull the leaves apart and clean in between. 

You'll want to clean leeks and fiddleheads thoroughly. For leeks, start by cutting off the roots and the tough dark green leaves. Pull back each layer and hold the leeks under running water, using your fingers to rub away the dirt. If the recipe calls for leeks cut into lengths or rounds, do that before washing them as you would greens and herbs. Hold fiddleheads under running water and use your fingers to rinse away the brown husks. 

Some fruits and vegetables must be cleaned with care so their surfaces don't become waterlogged or damaged.

Avoid washing mushrooms with exposed gills like portobellos and shiitakes in water. These should be wiped with a paper towel (dampen it if necessary) to remove the dirt. But go ahead and wash cremini and button mushrooms under water when needed. Their gills are more protected and they can take it. Just pat them dry immediately and never slice before washing.

You can scrub sturdy fruits and vegetables with edible skin more vigorously. If you notice a white dusting on concord or other grapes, there's no need to scrub it off. It's a natural bloom that's safe to eat and shows they're fresh since it rubs off over time. 

Strawberries, raspberries and other tender fruit require a gentle hand when washing, and drying before storing is key. Lay them on clean kitchen towels to dry or line a salad spinner with a few layers of paper towel and give them about 10 slow spins. Gently dab with a paper towel to remove any remaining moisture. 

When rhizomes like ginger or galangal are super young, the skin may be so thin all they need is a wash. Otherwise, peel them after cleaning them.

Give all root vegetables a scrub under running water using a vegetable brush or clean scouring cloth. Produce like celeriac should be washed once before cutting the skin away, and then washed again to remove any fibres that might have dirtied the flesh. 

It's best to wash fruits and vegetables even if you won't be eating the skin. This prevents bacteria that may be on the surface from travelling to the knife or your fingers and contaminating the flesh. 

How to store and keep things fresh

Storing fruit and vegetables correctly can help them taste their best and extend their life too.

Generally, refrigerate fruits that don't continue to ripen after being picked (cherries, lychees, rambutans and citrus), and leave fruits that do ripen (avocados, tomatoes, some melons — though not watermelon, mangoes, peaches and papaya), on the counter if they're underripe. When they're ripe to perfection or if you want to slow the ripening at any point, move them to the fridge.

Store leafy vegetables and herbs in a lidded container, plastic resealable bag or produce bag lined with paper towels to soak up extra moisture, and change the paper out if it gets too wet. In the case of woody herbs like rosemary and thyme, use a damp paper towel to prevent them from drying out. Store the bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge.

If you have the room, some leafy herbs like mint and cilantro do well refrigerated standing up in water (like cut flowers), with a plastic bag draped loosely over them. Store asparagus the same way, ideally.

All types of basil, from Italian to Thai to holy basil, can be damaged by the cold temperature of your fridge. Set them up instead in a jar of water beside your sink and change the water daily. 

illustration of fresh produce in the fridge in drawers, containers and bags
(Illustration: Flo Leung)

Most fruits and vegetables are best stored in sealable containers or bags in the crisper drawer, with some exceptions. Store berries in a paper towel-lined container (to protect them from damage) and cover loosely. They'll do better at the front of the fridge where the temperature won't be too cold for them. Store fiddleheads in a bowl of water in the fridge. A study found that the best way to store mushrooms (once they're out of their original containers) is actually not in a paper bag as commonly believed, but in a plastic bag — one left slightly open to let out the ethylene they produce.

Potatoes, sweet potatoes and all kinds of winter squash like kabocha and acorn keep best in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry instead of the fridge. 

Remove the leaves from root vegetables like carrots, daikon, beets and turnips, and store them in the crisper drawer in an open resealable or reusable bag for produce. Short of wrapping them in plastic, the best way to store cucumbers and bitter melon, as well as zucchini and other types of summer squash, is refrigerated in a sealed plastic bag. 

Corn stays fresher if you store it in the husk. Put unhusked cobs in a slightly damp paper bag within a plastic bag and place in the crisper. The moisture in the paper bag prevents them from drying out. 

And as to whether putting tomatoes in the fridge hurts their flavour, food publications have put the theory to the test, and don't see the harm. So store them in the fridge to slow ripening or prolong their life. Just serve them at the temperature of your choosing.

Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.

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