With the recent recalls of Trader Joe’s and Target brands of hummus in the news, the spread of listeria and other poisonous bacteria is on everyone’s mind. You can keep your family safer by making foods like that yourself, but you should also be aware that bacteria, germs and toxicity can happen to even the cleanest food if you don’t store it properly. And, if you’re spending extra to feed your children organic produce and farm fresh meats, you want to give your food the best chance to retain its freshness while making it last as long as you can. What steps can you take to ensure your food is safely and properly stored? This primer will help you better organize your kitchen and store organic foods for maximum value.
Check Your Refrigerator
Your refrigerator is going to be your primary tool in keeping things fresh, but first, you need to make sure that the temperature is properly set. According to the University of Illinois Meat Safety Course, your refrigerator should be set “between 34 and 40 degrees F.” Most refrigerators and freezers are equipped with a thermometer, but if you suspect it is broken you can check the temperature by placing a thermometer in water, putting it on the center rack of your refrigerator and checking it in 5-8 hours. If it is warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (F), you should adjust the settings to make it colder or call a repairman if you can’t. You should also regularly clean out foods and containers — once a week or so — and wipe down your refrigerator’s surfaces to prevent food build-up.
Again, to store organic foods properly, check your temperature settings. The FDA recommends you keep your freezer at 0 degrees F. The key to safely storing something and preventing freezer burn is making sure your item is tightly sealed. The longer you intend on storing something, the tighter and more secure it should be. You can often store organic foods in the freezer for as long as 3 to 6 months, depending on the product. The FDA has a downloadable PDF guide on the recommended length of refrigeration and freezing time to help you gauge how long to keep these items. I recommend using a Sharpie to mark anything that doesn’t have a date on it already.
Check Expiration Dates
Always check these dates on your meat and eggs as well as packaged products when you purchase them, and throw them out once they expire. Also remember to check time limits, such as “discard 7 days after opening”, and label these packages when you store them. For example, organic non-GMO chicken broth typically only has a week-long shelf life after refrigeration. Grab your Sharpie again and mark the date you need to throw it out.
Safely Storing Meat
When you’re thinking about how to store organic foods, your mind will definitely turn to the storage of meat. Meat is a very conducive breeding ground for bacteria, so it should be stored either in your refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible after it is opened or cooked. Once prepared, store it for no more than 2 days in a tightly sealed container. Also remember that if you are storing raw meat in your refrigerator, you should not let the package leak into anything below it. The seal from the butcher or manufacturer is often not secure enough to prevent leakage. When I store organic foods like meat in my refrigerator, I always place it in a bowl that can contain the entire package to prevent contamination and leakage into drawers and crevices.
My family only started buying fresh eggs about a year ago. Eggs don’t last that long in my house, so I was surprised to discover rotten eggs with nasty, crawling bugs after buying eggs in bulk! Always store eggs in your refrigerator and eat by the use-by date. 4-5 weeks is the longest you should store fresh eggs. Other than going rotten, though, eggs technically do not go bad, but they can lose freshness and cooking quality. On the other hand, if an egg is contaminated with salmonella, this bacteria does not thrive in the cold, so chances of cross contamination and grown will be reduced. Prevent the odds of buying eggs with salmonella by purchasing pastured eggs from a local farm if possible.
There are many rules on how to store organic foods, especially when it comes to produce, believe it or not! If your kids are like mine, then fresh fruit is probably flying off your shelves, but you need to know how to keep each item for the best freshness. According to Vegetarian Times, the first thing you need to know is that certain fruits emit a gas called ethylene, which is both odorless and colorless but “can lead to the premature decay of nearby ethylene-sensitive vegetables.” So you need to separate those 2 kinds of produce from each other! For example, bananas, broccoli and peas are all sensitive to ethylene while apples, apricots and cantaloupe emit high levels of this gas. Check out the complete article, “Spoiled Rotten – How to Store Fruits and Vegetables” for an exhaustive list of what goes together – and what should not. The article also contains a great list of which produce goes bad the fastest and which lasts the longest!
Wet produce usually spoils faster, so while I encourage you to clean your produce thoroughly, wait until you’re about to use it – and only wash what you are using! This goes for salad greens, too. On the other hand, a chef taught me to never wash mushrooms. You want to thoroughly clean them with a brush and a paper towel, but washing is not good for them — another reason to buy them organic! Mushrooms should always be dry. If they are wet, they start to rot, so you can see why washing is a no-no.
Where to Store Produce
Every type of produce has slightly different rules for proper storage. Here is an overview of the most popular ones.
Cool, dark places: Place the following produce in cool, dark storage, such as a bin in your cabinet:
- Any kind of potato. One warning with potatoes: you can use a potato that has sprouts on it IF you cut them off. The sprouts can make you sick. However, if the inside of the potato looks green, discard it altogether.
- Winter squash
- Root vegetables
Countertop storage: The following can stand on your countertop until ripe enough to eat. Buy some large, pretty glass bowls, banana hangers or even a bread basket to make them look appealing!
- Citrus fruit
- Plums and peaches
Except for bananas, all of these can also go in the refrigerator as well once cut or ripe. Bananas, however, can be frozen once they are ripe. Another trick for bananas? If you need to ripen them, place them in the freezer for a few hours. I’ve also heard it works to keep them near something electric, but I’ve never gotten this to work!
Store in water: Asparagus, celery, green onions and, of course, fresh herbs can be stored standing in water, as if they were flowers, in your refrigerator.
Refrigeration: Most of the other fruits and vegetables can be stored in the refrigerator, and please do so once they are cut or peeled. I recommend placing them in a container or bag. We try to avoid plastic, but you’ll want to keep produce wrapped, packaged or sealed to maintain freshness as well.
Bonus Tip: Longer Lasting Apples & Pears
Finally, have you ever cut up an apple or pear only to find out you have too much, leaving you with leftovers that go brown? Never fear. Simply put them in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of lemon juice. They won’t last too much longer, but you can eat them the next day. I’ve also tried sprinkling them with lemon, which works if you don’t mind the lemony taste!
While I know it is hard to accept when you are spending extra to buy fresh, organic, grass-fed and clean food, the truth is that you will throw some of it out, especially if you’re still getting used to the limited longevity of fresher foods. However, once you get the hang of it and plan for the fresh food you keep in your home, learning how to store organic foods gets easier. We almost never throw excess food out — and I cook complete dinners every day — but that didn’t happen overnight. The only exception is celery. My local produce supplier has an organic bin comes with more than I could ever use. So if you have a tip on what to do with a head of celery every week, please share so I don’t have to throw any more out!