By Dylan Love
There’s a science to storing your food for maximum freshness.
All foods are different and have specific storage needs to prevent spoilage. There are some common sense basics around what can or can’t be stored in your fridge, on your countertop, or even in your bread basket. But there’s also a science lurking under the surface, requiring you to be mindful of what you store together.
Ethylene gas, or “the ripening hormone,” is the star of the show here. It’s a colorless, odorless, hydrocarbon gas that is almost exclusively produced by your favorite fruit items. Apples, apricots, avocados, ripe bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, kiwifruits, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, and plantains are some examples of foods that are said to be ethylene-producing. Ethylene is essentially a natural plant hormone in gas form, encouraging food cells to degrade and the food itself to ripen. It makes food softer and sweeter, causes leaves to droop, and sprouts to occur.
While some foods produce this gas, others react to it. When the two neighbor each other, they can interact. For the most part, it is vegetables that are classified as ethylene-sensitive, and it’s a pretty long list: arugula, asparagus, beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, green onion, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, parsnips, potatoes, and spinach.
By storing your apples and fresh greens in the same refrigerator drawer, you’re actually making the greens spoil faster — the ethylene gas emitted by the apples is tricking the greens into ripening ahead of time. It speeds up the process, so your vegetables turn to rot more quickly when they are exposed to ripe or overripe fruits.
You may have heard that you can’t store potatoes and onions together either. This rule applies for the same reason as fruits and vegetables. Onions are ethylene producers and potatoes are ethylene-sensitive. If you keep them near each other, the ethylene will cause your potatoes to start sprouting little green buds, which you don’t really want to eat.
The release of ethylene gas can actually be used to your advantage in some cases. Sometimes you want to accelerate the ripening of certain foods, which is perfectly cool. The key to doing so effectively is in your storage strategy.
For example, let’s say you just purchased a bunch of tomatoes, and they’re not quite as ripe as you’d like them to be. In order to get them to ripen quickly, place them in a paper bag. Tomatoes are ethylene producers, so they’ll actually speed up the process of their own ripening since you’re trapping the gas in the bag with them. A quick note that this only works with a paper bag — don’t use a plastic bag, because that will trap moisture and actually cause your tomatoes to rot.
These are simple methods for keeping your kitchen produce at its freshest. Consider this list of ethylene-sensitive and ethylene-producing foods when you’re next stocking your shelves. But know the general rule is easy: keep your fruits and vegetables away from each other!