Thursday, August 27, 2009

Storage & Preservation of Produce & Cheese

Last week, a reader asked about veggie and cheese storage, expressing the concern that these perishables often spoil before they can be used. That concern is shared by many. Annually, in Canada and the U.S., several million tons of food is thrown away. At a cost of several hundred dollars, on average, per household, these statistics are alarming. Two rules of thumb can alleviate much of this waste.

  1. When it comes to shopping for perishables (particularly produce,) buy only what is needed and can be consumed in a few days. This may mean more frequent visits to the grocery store, but you'll enjoy fresher produce and avoid spoilage of a stockpile. Most produce requires a cool atmosphere and a fridge not filled to capacity actually works more efficiently, allowing internal air to circulate better and preventing pockets of cooler or warmer air from forming. Those over-chilled or -warm conditions can be very detrimental to the longevity of both produce and cheese.

  2. When storing perishables, avoid washing them until they are to be used. Many vegetables and fruits have natural oils or have been sprayed with protective (and neutral) waxy coatings which help preserve them. Washing removes those oils and/or coatings, making the produce much more vulnerable to spoilage. If the product has excessive dirt on it, simply brush the soil from it with a soft cloth and then store. When ready to use, the produce can be washed. Check out this very informative article Fruit & Veggie Washes by "The Grocery Bags," Anna Wallner and Kristina Matisic. Their findings support my own experience.

Though these two rules will help avoid most produce spoilage, there is another concern when storing fruit and vegetables and that is whether the product needs to be stored in the fridge, at room temperature, with ventilation or without, or in darkness. While researching this, I came across an excellent article on SparkPeople which included this comprehensive and easy to read chart: Fruit & Veggie Storage Chart .

When it comes to cheese, the situation is not as clear. Some argue cheese needs an airy environment, while others argue ventilation is death for cheese. It turns out, both are true. It depends on the cheese, which is a living food, much like yogurt. During research, I found an article – directed towards food service professionals (recommendations by The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Wisconsin Cheese Makers,) – which answers this question, in all its complexity: Cheese Storage Tips.

I've heard other tips on preserving foods, but none of them have proved successful for me. One such recommendation says: to preserve bananas' freshness, they should be separated from the bunch. I ran three experiments on this suggestion, using three different bunches of bananas in varying weather conditions. In each experiment, I separated a few of the bananas from the bunch, and left the remaining bananas attached. Each time, all bananas, whether separate or attached, appeared to mature at the same rate, and their taste confirmed this. We do live in a very arid climate, so I'm not sure if this skewed the results or not. You might wish to perform your own experiments.

One handy hint I learned from my mother is to freeze produce that is deteriorating, but not yet spoiled, and use those veggies in a stock. The flavours may not be as high as fresh vegetables would produce, but those wilted products won't be thrown into a landfill where they'd be completely wasted. A compost pile is another good place for (most) produce that has passed its prime.

If you have ideas or suggestions you wish to share on this subject, please leave a comment.