Most people tend to treat all fruits and vegetables the same, fitting them wherever there’s room in the fridge. The reality is that different types of produce have different storage requirements. Some need to be placed in the coldest part of the refrigerator, some need humidity, and some need to be stored on the counter at room temperature.
The Different Temperature Zones in Your Refrigerator
We often think of a refrigerator as having a single temperature—ideally at or below 40 degrees to comply with FDA guidelines for food safety—but actually, every refrigerator has its own microclimates, with warmer, cooler, and more humid zones. When we monitored one of our refrigerators in the test kitchen, we found that the temperature ranged from as low as 33 degrees to as high as 43. You can make this temperature variation work to your advantage by placing produce in the zone where it will fare best.
Cold Zone: Back, Top to Middle
The top and middle shelves at the back of the refrigerator are normally the coldest; we found that temperatures in this zone dipped as low as 33 degrees.
Moderate Zone: Front, Middle to Bottom
The areas at the front of our refrigerator, from the middle to the bottom shelves, were the most moderate, with temperatures that registered at least 37 degrees and sometimes higher.
Humid Zone: Crisper Drawer
Crispers provide a humid environment that helps keep produce with a high water content from shriveling and rotting; in our refrigerator, the crisper’s temperature mirrored the moderate temperature at the front of the fridge. However, if the humidity is too high, water can build up on fruits and vegetables and hasten spoilage. If your drawer has vents, you can regulate humidity by adjusting them; the more moisture that’s allowed to pass in and out of the drawer, the less humid the environment.
Where to Store Produce
Store Apples, Cherries, and Grapes Anywhere in the Fridge
These items are not prone to chill-injury and can be stored anywhere in the refrigerator (including its coldest zones), provided the temperature doesn’t freeze them.
Store Berries, Melons, Lemons, Limes, Oranges, and Grapefruits at the Front of the Fridge
These fruits are sensitive to chill-injury and should be placed in the front of the refrigerator, where the temperatures tend to be higher.
Store Most Vegetables in the Crisper
Virtually all vegetables do best in the relatively humid environment of the crisper drawer, including artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chiles, cucumbers, eggplant, fresh herbs, green beans, leafy greens, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, peppers, radishes, scallions, summer squash, sugar snap peas, turnips, and zucchini. We also put corn in the crisper drawer. The sugar in corn begins to convert to starch from the moment the corn is picked; though this conversion is much slower in the supersweet varieties sold at most stores these days, storing corn in the refrigerator will slow the process even more.
Be sure to keep vegetables either in their original packaging or in partially open plastic produce bags (more specific tips below) to help prevent moisture loss.
Store Peaches, Pears, and Most Other Climacteric Fruit on the Counter
Climacteric fruits are those that continue to ripen once harvested. For this reason, they are often picked before fully ripe and are best left at room temperature (away from heat and direct sunlight) to develop peak flavor, texture, and aroma. In the cold environment of the refrigerator, they can fail to ripen properly (avocados are an exception), and some discoloration may occur. Climacteric fruits include apricots, bananas, mangos, nectarines, papayas, peaches, and plums.
Store Avocados at the Front of the Fridge
As with ripe kiwis, pears, and tomatoes, ripe avocados (another climacteric fruit) should be stored in the refrigerator. However, we also recommend refrigerating unripe avocados. Though the colder temperature slows the production of the ripening hormone ethylene, causing the avocados to ripen more slowly than they would on the counter, we’ve found that they ripen more evenly since the slowdown also gives the ethylene more time to distribute evenly throughout the fruit.
Store Alliums, Potatoes, and Winter Squash in the Pantry
Garlic, onions, shallots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, delicata squash, and winter squash such as butternut, acorn, and hubbard should be kept at cool room temperature and away from light to prolong shelf life.
What Is Ethylene Gas?As produce ripens, it emits small amounts of the ripening hormone ethylene. If ethylene is allowed to build up (in the closed environment of a plastic bag, for example, or a crisper), the gas will activate enzymes that break down and soften the cell walls of produce, speeding moisture loss and spoilage.
When to Wash Produce
With the exception of berries (which we like to wash immediately in a vinegar solution; see below), it’s best to wash produce just before you use it. Moisture promotes the growth of mold and bacteria, which in turn causes spoilage. If you do wash produce ahead of time, make sure to dry it thoroughly before storing it.
Why You Should Leave Produce in Its Original Packaging
In general, it’s a good idea to store produce in the packaging in which it was sold. Sometimes ready-made packaging has a function beyond simple convenience and can actually help preserve the contents. For example, though they appear solid, the bags in which spinach and other greens are now sold are made of a polymer that allows ethylene to pass through freely, staving off spoilage. Other types of packaging often feature small perforations or other openings (such as the bags in which celery is sold); here, too, the intent is to allow ethylene to escape while also protecting the produce from the drying effects of air.
Herb KeepersFresh herbs are essential for many recipes, but we rarely use an entire bunch at once. Can these containers keep leftover herbs fresh longer?
Tips for Extending the Life of Your Produce
The following storage tips will help you make the most of the produce you buy.
Water Your Asparagus Spears
Asparagus stored in the refrigerator can quickly dry out and become tough. To keep the spears tender and flavorful, trim the ends and set the spears upright in an inch or two of water and loosely covered with plastic wrap before placing them in the fridge. Limp broccoli, scallions, and celery benefit from the same treatment.
Keep Corn Moist
Our preferred way to store corn is to place the unhusked ears in a wet paper bag (or wrap them in damp paper towels), place the wet bag in a plastic produce bag, and refrigerate them in the crisper drawer.
Keep Lettuce Moist
When lettuce and other leafy greens come in bags, store them in their original packaging in the crisper drawer. Store intact heads of lettuce without packaging (or washed dried leaves) wrapped in moist paper towels in a partially open plastic produce bag or zipper-lock bag.
Wash and Thoroughly Dry Berries
While damp berries turn mushy faster than dry berries, we’ve discovered that cleaning these fruits with a mild vinegar solution and carefully drying them as soon as you bring them home destroys bacteria and mold spores, ensuring their quality for longer.
Wash the berries in a bowl with 3 cups of water and 1 cup of distilled white vinegar. Drain them in a colander and rinse them under running water.
Place the berries in a salad spinner lined with three layers of paper towels. Spin for 15 seconds or until the berries are completely dry. Store the berries in a loosely covered paper towel–lined container at the front of the fridge.
Store Whole Cucumbers, Zucchini, and Summer Squashes in Plastic Wrap
Following the lead of shrink-wrapped English cucumbers, we wrap American cucumbers as well as zucchini and summer squashes tightly in plastic wrap to help keep them crisp. Though it's not entirely airtight, plastic wrap forms an effective second skin that minimizes moisture loss in these vegetables. Tightly rewrapping these vegetables once they're cut will also help slow their deterioration.
Wait to Rinse and Pluck Grapes
Rinsed grapes will spoil after just a couple of days in the refrigerator, because moisture exposure encourages bacteria and mold growth. If you take grapes off the stem, they will also rot rather quickly since the now-exposed stem attachment becomes a site for bacteria and mold growth. Unrinsed, stem-on grapes will last nearly two weeks in the fridge before starting to decay.
Trim Carrots Before Storing
Carrots continue to feed their leafy tops in storage, which causes them to lose moisture far more quickly. We recommend first trimming the carrots of their tops (which can be used to make a sauce) and then placing them in an open zipper-lock bag. Stored this way, carrots should stay firm for at least a few weeks.