Knowing Our Food: Storage
Though food nourishes us every day, there is still much that we can learn about it. At Critical Concrete, we aim to consume as much local, seasonal food as possible and we have recently started growing it ourselves in our food forest. Unfortunately, it is quite common that we as a society eat food without paying attention to its seasonal availability; it is easy to be influenced by a globalized system that makes practically any food available at any time in the year regardless of climate and the environmental impact. The production of food outside of its peak season can have 3-10 times the emissions as food imported from better climates, so it is important to not only support local farmers, but also to mind the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. While some imported foods, such as almonds and avocados, are imported by boat and have a lower footprint than locally produced options, other more perishable foods are freighted by air, which creates 50 times the carbon emissions as boat transportation. Aside from environmental friendliness, seasonal, local food can be more nutritious and flavorful as it has more time to ripen before harvest, and supports small farms and sustainable farming practices.
That being said, choosing local and seasonal produce means nothing if our food goes bad before we have the chance to eat it. That means that storing food to extend its lifespan is highly important. This research grew out of our curiosity to know more about alternative ways of storing food that are not energy consuming. However, as we encountered more information, the research evolved to focus more on food knowledge, with the aim of informing ourselves and our readers about the needs of our fruits and vegetables and how we can store and consume them. Our upcoming articles from this research will delve into the topics long-term storage, food production, and the use of food scraps, and in this article, we will discuss how to make use of conventional kitchen storage to keep food fresh.
Food Waste and the Fridge
Food waste is an immense problem that worsens each year. In fact, fighting food waste has been determined to be one of the most urgent solutions to fighting climate change. The production and disposal of wasted food results in water waste, land waste and deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Although a tremendous amount of food waste is the result of industrial food practices, in Europe 42% of food is thrown out by the consumer, and only one third of that food wasted consists of inedible residuals (skin, shells, peels). Regardless of whether climate change can be tackled through individual actions, consumers can still reduce the amount of food lost to spoilage in their own homes. Even if it does not solve environmental issues in and of itself, when we learn about proper food storage and reduce our waste, we save money and take the first steps toward better societal food practices.
At first we were inclined to look for alternatives to our usual house appliances like the fridges, as refrigerants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are the main cause of the depletion of the ozone layer. This led us to a few methods of long-term storage, which we built as prototypes to evaluate their efficacy in the climate our research lab is located in. Keep an eye out for our next article, detailing these methods and their benefits for different foods and environments.
However, it can’t be ignored that storing food in the fridge and freezer is such common practice, so this article will describe the ways to reduce food waste in the context of conventional storage practices. Thus we first have to analyse the way the fridge is used, to know its strong and weak points and the way it works. Additionally, it is crucial to understand the process of food decay and the science behind it. Once it is understood how food decays, the same principles can be applied everywhere. In order to reach a balance in the system, minimizing waste and prolonging the life of food, we must first know the needs of fruits and vegetables and demystify their storage environments, both artificial and natural.
Knowledge about everyday storage of fruits and vegetables is essential. In order to better understand the proper storage of fresh vegetables and fruits, the first step is to clarify the biochemical characteristics and processes which occur after harvesting. This knowledge can help reveal why certain foods become rotten very fast whereas other foods last for a long time. This phenomenon is influenced by two factors: the speed of natural metabolism depending on the specific plant and the way it is stored.
Enzymes are proteins which serve as catalysts to chemical changes in living organisms and there are thousands of different enzymes with varying functions. Enzymes in our food cause changes to fruit and vegetables which cause them to spoil. In cool temperatures, these enzymes slow their activity, and they can die when cooked above 60 degrees.
Aside from enzymes, three other rotting agents can reduce the life of food. These are mold, which is visible, yeasts, which convert sugars into alcohol through fermentation, and bacteria, some of which can poison food. Using this information, we can determine how to avoid mold and bacteria, and slow down the process of decay.
Conditions for storage
The best storage method for a given food depends primarily on three parameters: temperature, humidity and ripening.
Temperature: Cooling down slows down the metabolic process and thus has an immense effect on preservation. Nevertheless, there are certain plants, such as bananas, tomatoes, eggplants or cucumber which are very sensitive to the cold and also others which lose vitamins and taste. Moreover you should take into consideration where in the refrigerator to put things. The middle and the back are usually colder than the other areas of the fridge. As there is no cooling on the bottom cold air coming from the middle can warm up and rise up which leads to the different temperatures levels.
Humidity: Many fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, leafy greens, carrots and roots, are susceptible to humidity loss and shriveling. For these, it is important to ensure a high level of atmospheric humidity. Many refrigerators have a crisper drawer for vegetables in order to keep a higher level of humidity. Some vegetables that should definitely be stored in the crisper drawer are spring onions, celery root, spinach, and leeks. Otherwise, vegetables that are susceptible to moisture loss can be wrapped in damp towels and stored in other areas of the fridge.
Ripening: In basic terms, ripening can divide produce into two groups: the kind that continues the process of ripening after the harvest and the kind which abruptly stop ripening when harvested. This fact depends on the natural plant hormone ethylene. Ethylene is a gaseous hydrocarbon (C₂H₄) which speeds up the ripening process. Some fruits and vegetables release ethylene gas in the process of becoming ripe. Others, by contrast, are sensitive to ethylene and absorb it. If you do not want to speed up the ripening and spoiling effect, try to store ethylene-sensitive vegetables apart from those which release a lot of ethylene.
According to their ethylene production, apples, tomatoes, peaches, apricots, avocados, kiwi, mango and bananas should be stored apart from other fruits and vegetables. But you can also make use of this property when you want something to ripen faster. In that case, you purposefully store high ethylene producers together with ethylene sensitive ones. When you have green tomatoes you can store them together with apples in order to get them to ripen faster.
Referring to proper storage, there are some rules of thumb about food that should never be stored in the refrigerator. Fruits sensitive to cold are pineapples, avocados, bananas, mandarins, mango and melons. Vegetables sensitive to cold are artichokes, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, garlic and onions. Nevertheless, there are some real divas who cannot really decide whether they want to be stored in the fridge or in the room. Cucumbers and zucchinis for example are sensitive to cold but if too warm they lose humidity and start to shrivel fast. Therefore, they should be stored in the crisper drawer or in the top part of the refrigerator, wrapped in a damp towel to avoid cold damage and humidity loss.
Additional Specific Storage Strategies
With this knowledge of general food storage, we can delve into more specific ways to increase the lifespan of our fruits and vegetables. Berries and cherries are susceptible to mold, so they should not be washed until just before they are eaten. Also, berries are often quite fragile and should be stored in a single layer, if possible. Figs are sensitive to humidity, which makes paper bags good storage containers to absorb their excess moisture, but they can also be stored on plates in the fridge.
As for vegetables, removing rubber bands from the stems is always the first step. Radishes, beets, carrots, and turnips, should be separated from their greens to avoid losing moisture in the roots. Then, the roots can be stored in an open container with a wet towel placed on top. Greens are best in closed containers alongside a damp cloth to keep them from drying. However, you can save room in the fridge by storing kale, chard, and collard greens upright in glasses of water on the counter. Celery and fennel can be stored this way as well. Asparagus is best stored upright in a water inside the fridge. It should be noted that using paper bags, reusable containers, glasses, or damp cloths should make it easy to eliminate the need for any single-use plastic inside the fridge.
Hopefully, being more cognisant of the needs of fruits and vegetables can limit food ending up in the trash or compost. Now that we understand how the chemical processes happening inside fruits and vegetables cause them to react to different conditions, we can store it in the right way. We can take advantage of the different areas inside your fridge, and organize our fridges to maximize the lifespan of our food. To help adjust to all this new information, we produced a chart to help understand fruits and vegetables and store them in the best way possible. Download it, print it, and put it on the wall in your kitchen!
In our next article about food we will discuss different ways to store food for longer periods of time and the benefits of each method. Stay tuned to learn how fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed past the periods when they are in season, without forfeiting the nutritional value and flavor of eating seasonal food.
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