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How to Wash and Store Produce (& Keep Your Kitchen in Check)

Known for her healthful, wholesome dishes that are always delicious, Pamela Salzman is the woman we call upon for cooking occasions big and small. In fact, we’re still dreaming of the meal she thoughtfully created for us last spring at Folded Hills Ranch, and we’re cooking from her new book, Quicker than Quick, nonstop lately. Like any great chef, her knowledge extends far beyond recipes and imaginative meals. From tips on how to wash and store produce to insightful ideas around cooking with what you have on hand, Pamela dishes on the tips and tricks every at-home chef should know.
Rip & Tan: We’re hearing a lot of different takes on the ideal way to wash our produce these days. Can you take us through your post grocery shopping process?
Pamela Salzman: Fortunately, there is no evidence that this virus is being passed on through the food supply. It is heat-sensitive, however, which means there’s extra insurance in cooking your food. When I get my produce delivered or bring it home from the market, I wash my hands with soap and water first. Then, I put the produce away unless it’s something I normally wash when I get it home from the store, like heads of lettuce or kale, just to make things easy later in the week. When I’m ready to prep my produce, I wash it under cool running water. That’s it!
Rip & Tan: How can we store our produce so that it lasts longer without losing out on taste?
Pamela Salzman: It’s better not to wash everything right away because it can make produce not last as long. Certain produce is better stored at room temperature, like tomatoes, which will be sweeter if kept out of the fridge. You can also store potatoes, onions, garlic, and winter squash at room temperature. Stone fruit and melons will ripen better at room temperature.
Rip & Tan: We’ve heard about keeping fresh herbs in a glass with water or carrots in water to keep them fresh longer. Any other similar insider tips you can share?
Pamela Salzman: I slice a little off the bottom of a bunch of asparagus and stick the whole bunch in a jar with an inch of water. No need to cover it. Mushrooms last longer in a paper bag. If you don’t want your bananas and avocados to ripen too quickly, keep them away from apples. For that reason, I try to store fruits and vegetables separately. Potatoes are better off in a dark place.
Rip & Tan: What are the most common misconceptions around washing and storing produce?
Pamela Salzman: People think they need to wash their produce with special solutions like vinegar and water or bottled “produce washes,” or worse, with soap and water. Regular, cool water does just as well, and soap and water is a really bad idea because it is not meant for human consumption, so it can actual cause gastrointestinal distress. Warm water is also not a good idea because it will make your produce limp.
Rip & Tan: How do you organize your produce in your kitchen? Do you keep items in bags, cut it and place into containers, or let it sit freely?
Pamela Salzman: I keep items in produce bags from the supermarket if they have not been washed. Once washed, I store it in separate clean bags. I have used Neat-Os bags for years, but they are no longer available. I am currently trying out Zip Top bags and Vejibags for clean produce. Cut produce, I store in airtight glass containers in the fridge. Produce that does not need refrigeration sits in bowls on the countertop. Again, I keep likes with likes in order to prevent things from going bad too quickly. Specifically, apples, stone fruits, melons, tomatoes and bananas can produce ethylene and cause other produce to deteriorate more quickly.
Rip & Tan: Any tips on specific places in the refrigerator that work best for different items? Meat, vegetables, fruit, and so forth?
Pamela Salzman: The door is the warmest part of the fridge, so it’s not ideal for very perishable items like meat and dairy. I always keep produce in the crisper drawers which are humidity controlled and keep produce fresher for longer. I like to put packages of meat, poultry, and seafood on plates or other dishes in case they leak, and in the coldest part of the fridge. If you have a meat drawer, set it to 29 degrees.
Rip & Tan: How can we keep our fruit fresh and on display while keeping fruit flies and other kitchen calamities at bay? Should we wash fruit upon bringing home the same way you would vegetables?
Pamela Salzman: Look at the surface of fruit to make sure there are no bruises or sticky areas that would attract fruit flies or other pests. There are wire, mesh covers that can protect fruit on the counter and keep fruit flies away. I don’t wash my fruit until I want to use it.
Rip & Tan: What pantry staples do you always try to have on hand?
Pamela Salzman: Onions, garlic, salt and olive oil can get me very far. After that, I always have vinegar, premade curry paste, herbs and spices, jarred tomatoes, jarred tuna, quinoa, rice, lentils and dried beans; and in the freezer, I always have frozen wild fish, frozen vegetables, and frozen fruit. I can do a lot with those ingredients!
Rip & Tan: How do you avoid wasting food as your items start to go bad?
Pamela Salzman: I go through my fridge once a week, always the day before I create my meal plan, in order to utilize first what is going to go bad. Older items get pulled to the front of the fridge. I will also freeze anything I can’t use before it will go bad. I will blanch vegetables for a few minutes, drain, submerge in ice water, drain, pat dry, and freeze in one layer. Fruit does not have to be blanched before freezing. A lot of food can be frozen with success.
Rip & Tan: From cooking meat that’s been frozen to avoiding burning garlic or over/under-salting when creating your own recipe, it feels like there’s a lot of room for error in our current situation. What are your best practices for at-home cooking?
Pamela Salzman: You should feel comfortable making swaps as necessary, using your best judgment. If you are not comfortable in the kitchen, it helps to read a recipe through before starting and try not to deviate if you’re not sure, for example, don’t cook without covering if the recipe specifically says to cook, covered.  It’s also a good idea to be present when cooking, especially when using the stove which requires more hands-on attention then the oven which is a bit more hands-off. In general, check the dish before your timer goes off, because you can always add time, but once something is overcooked, there’s not much you can do. Same goes for salt. Salt as you go, but use less than you think because you can always add more. Always taste your food as you proceed, when appropriate, and especially before serving.
Rip & Tan: What are your go-to meals for easy weekday dining?
Pamela Salzman: I am cooking exclusively out of my new cookbook, Quicker Than Quick, which is a collection of my favorite quick and easy recipes that are designed to be super flexible and use a lot of pantry staples! I’m making a lot of stir-fries, chopped salads, veggie burgers, curries and sheet pan dinners.
Photos by Dawn Heumann,Nicki Sebastian,Tessa Neustadt