Questions for Cooks: Open air fruit and vegetable storage

Reader Help (do you think it’s his/her real name?) submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

How can I properly store my non-refrigerated produce without forgetting about it so long it goes bad? I have individual bins in a dark place for potatoes, onions, and garlic. However, my counters are covered with winter squash, apples, oranges, bananas, avocado, etc. We go through it quickly enough that I don’t need to refrigerate it (no room in the fridge), but leaving it all out on the counter isn’t working.

My grandmother’s farm had a root cellar for exactly these types of foods. Fruits and vegetables seemed to last all winter down there, well, if we could keep the rodents and snakes from taking up residence. Since you wrote in with this question, though, I’m going to assume you don’t have a spare root cellar on your property you just happened to forget you owned.

If you’re a hardcore homesteader and live in a cold climate, you can build a root cellar in an unfinished basement or in your backyard. I didn’t get the hardcore homesteader vibe from you, however.

For those of us who regularly visit grocery stores and who live in cities or suburbia, fruit bowls on tables and a cupboard shelf dedicated to vegetables are probably more our style. Fruit bowls are great when left in areas where people gather and snack. And, a shelf in a kitchen cupboard is typically dry and dark, which are good for the vegetables.

Air circulation is really important for fruits and vegetables. They need it to dissipate the ethylene gas that they give off as they age. On a table, fruits shouldn’t have an issue since they’re in the open air. Rotate the fruits in the bowl, though, so a piece isn’t at the bottom for days on end. In a cupboard, vegetables will need some air circulation to stay fresher longer — so put them in a cupboard you access at least once a day. (Plus, you won’t forget about them if they’re in a cupboard you regularly open.) Also, line the shelf with fruit shelf liner to help air circulate beneath the veggies.

For both fruits and vegetables, if you notice anything rotting, immediately remove it from the bowl or shelf. The increased production of ethylene gas during the rotting process will make the foods around it ripen and rot faster than they normally would. Conversely, if you want a green banana to ripen faster, stick it in a closed paper bag with an older apple. Apples give off high amounts of ethylene gas and will help speed up the ripening process of the banana.

Thank you, Help, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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7 comments posted

  1. Posted by Rae - 03/26/2011

    In my RV, I screwed a cup hook under an overhead cabinet and hung a metal basket from it. It’s out of the way, the fruit has airflow all around, and I get a visual reminder to eat it!

  2. Posted by Natalie - 03/26/2011

    I have done the same as Rae in my kitchen. I bought a nice cast iron ornamental hummingbird hook and hung a metal basket on it. It’s both functional and pretty.

  3. Posted by Karen (scotland) - 03/26/2011

    Just to say what the other commenters said, really. You get hanging three tier metal baskets for less than £10 on Amazon or ebay. I’ve had one since my student days and it turned out great when we had kids – we could stop our toddler taking bites out of every apple in the house…
    We’re thinking of getting another for those veg that we buy occasionally – pumpkins, beetroot etc. I hate them lying on the counter but if I put them in a cupboard, I often forget about them.
    Karen (Scotland)

  4. Posted by Matt Fetissoff - 03/26/2011

    Nice one Rae :)

  5. Posted by Darcey - 03/29/2011

    Over here in India, one thing I’ve seen is window-boxes! A window in the kitchen will have shelves built on the *outside*, and screen put around it so the monkeys and other critters can’t get in. The produce is then put in that “window box”, and then the cook can just open her window, reach in, grab what’s needed, and close the window again. Fruit and veg, without obstructing the view.

  6. Posted by sixtyfive - 03/31/2011

    In the colder months my attached garage, which is always chilly but never below freezing, makes a handy storage spot for potatoes, onions, apples, oranges, etc. I have hanging baskets over the sink for shallots, garlic, a lemon or two – and a bouquet of Italian parsley on the counter. Helps me to remember to use stuff if I can see it.

  7. Posted by Nick - 04/01/2011

    Where I grew up we had a pantry attached to the kitchen with wooden racking and loose weave baskets. It was cool and dark and the open nature of baskets and shelves encourage air flow. The darkness is essential to ensure that your vegetables (especially potatoes and onions) don’t start trying to sprout.

    My own home is lacking in a pantry so what I use is baskets and shoe racks. Where necessary, to try and stop the light getting to the vegetables I double bag using large paper bags which I blag off my greengrocer – don’t use plastic otherwise your fruit and veg will sweat and rot quicker (the ethylene gas has nowhere to escape to) paperbags breath and although it will happen eventually it’s nowhere near as fast.

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