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Ask a Foodie: What tips do you have for keeping produce fresh the longest?

People may purchase fresh produce with grand plans, but the road to refrigerator rot is often paved with good intentions.

The market-fresh kale that would have made its way into a mid-week meal is now beginning to wilt next to the milk. Turnips are quickly turning into black-spotted bulbs, and peaches need to be preserved if they’re going survive long enough to fill a pie crust.

This week’s Ask a Foodie question inquired, “What tips do you have for keeping produce fresh the longest?”

Alex Smith of Rise Up Farms in Elkhart spoke with us this spring about CSA programs, and offered a simple tip to extending seasonal crops.

“With any sort of farm, even when we’re growing a whole lot of different things like we do, sometimes we’ve got a glut of one crop, like tomatoes, for example,” Smith said. “If you’re able to do a bit of preserving at that time, then that can really help you enjoy those in the future.”

Of the many methods for preservation, Smith believes freezing to be easiest way to stretch the life of produce items and recommends his personal two-step process.

  1. Clean and cut produce, then lay it out on a tray and put it in the freezer.
  2. After a day, move them from the tray to a sealed bag and back in the freezer.

“It’s going to make them a lot easier to use. They’re not all going to freeze together,” he said.

For those looking to retain freshness in fruits and vegetables without preservation, Unity Gardens executive director Sara Stewart says the key is keeping produce dry and chilled until it’s ready to be prepared or stored.

For trips to the farmers market, she suggests bringing along a cooler or insulated bag lined with frozen water bottles to keep produce from wilting in the car while you run other errands.

”If you put just a few frozen water bottles on the bottom, then you can keep your stuff cold for the trip home so that it never gets to room temperature before you get to eat it,” Stewart said. “Then, put it in the fridge to keep it nice and dry and cold.”

Greens like spinach, chard, romaine, cabbage and kale are best consumed shortly after purchase.

Theri Niemier, owner of Bertrand Farm in Niles, Mich., said greens easily retain moisture, so they should be thoroughly dried before storage to avoid bacteria growth. Hand-patting with paper towels works, but an inexpensive salad spinner is even more efficient. Wilted leaves should be pulled and discarded before refrigerating.

“The best thing to do would be maybe to sit the greens out on your countertop and let it dry,” Niemier said. “Then wait until it’s thoroughly dry and then bag it with a piece of paper towel in the bag and put it in your crisper.”

Niemier said one leafy green that’s particularly abundant in our area is the vitamin-rich superfood, kale.

“One of the things that newbies on our farm always want to know is what do they do with all of this kale. Kale chips are the easiest, fastest way to preserve them,” said Niemier. “When you bag them, they’re kind of preserved indefinitely.”

  1. Remove the kale leaves from their tough stems and toss the leaves with a little olive oil and spices.
  2. Spread leaves on a baking sheet and place in the oven on low heat, at about 350 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes, until dehydrated and crunchy.

Stewart also suggested dehydrating herbs and fruits for future enjoyment, but warns against canning produce without proper research.

“It’s really important that people ask and know what they’re doing,” Stewart said. “Canning is nothing to wing.” 

The Purdue Extension offers extensive advice on canning, including preparation, what items are best canned and how to avoid bacterial contamination.

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