‘I’m a Food Scientist, and These Are the 6 Fresh Foods I Wouldn’t Refrigerate’
On the flip side, this got me wondering: Which other foods am I storing in the completely wrong place in my kitchen? Apparently, quite a few. Growing up, I adopted the organization skills of my parents, which isn’t saying a lot (sorry, mom). And along with that came the notion that pretty much all produce was destined for the crisper drawer. Boy, was I wrong.
After speaking with two food scientists and experts in the field of 'knowing-where-to-store-everything-in-your-kitchen,' I learned the truth behind why some of my produce turned into mush in just a few days or browned in the blink of an eye. Spoiler: It wasn’t supposed to be in the fridge in the first place. In an effort to make our lives simpler and more waste-free (not to mention cost-effective), here’s a roundup of the foods you shouldn’t refrigerate… or else.
6 foods you shouldn’t refrigerate, according to food scientists
Although you may think that sticking a bunch of bananas in the fridge is a harmless act, this food storage expert says otherwise. According to Natalie Alibrandi, a London-based food scientist and CEO of Nali Consulting, bananas should not be refrigerated... especially if they’re unripe. “Normally, when you purchase bananas at the grocery store, they are unripe. Therefore, it’s best to keep them on the counter so you can actually allow them to ripen,” Alibrandi says.
Low temperatures in the refrigerator can slow the chemical ripening process of ripening, which can in turn prevent green or hard bananas from ever reaching their ripe—softened, sweetened—potential. That being said, once they’ve been able to ripen to your liking at room temperature, they fall under the category of “pantry items you can refrigerate.” Just don’t be alarmed if the peels turn dark brown or black within a few days—they'll look off, but know that this won’t affect the interior of the bananas.
Like bananas, Alibrandi recommends keeping avocados on the counter for similar reasons. "For starters, if you buy an unripe, rock-hard avocado, storing it in the fridge will only keep it inedible for even longer," she says. Again, the cool temperatures in the fridge slow down the ripening process. "Most refrigerators are kept at 40°F or below, which doesn’t create the ideal environment for an unripe avocado to become creamy and flavorful."
Research shows that avocados should be kept at or near 68°F—so a cool, dry place in your kitchen; not next to the stove—once they've ripened to optimize postharvest quality.
Garlic and Onions
Alibrandi also recommends keeping alliums, like garlic, out of the fridge. “Moisture creates a good environment for sprouting, which isn’t harmful, but shows the garlic is past its point of peak ripeness,” she explains.
Alibrandi says that onions are best stored on the counter, too. “When storing onions in the fridge, they are bound to absorb the moisture in the fridge, leaving them less crunchy and more exposure to spoilage.”
Tomatoes and Peaches
According to Savannah Braden, a biological scientist and the associate director of technology at food storage tech startup Apeel, you should never refrigerate climacteric fruits. This includes bananas and avocados, but also peaches and tomatoes.
“Climacteric fruits continue to mature after they've picked—think of a green banana—so keeping them in a cold environment will not only slow down the ripening process, but it can also affect the flavor, texture, and other characteristics of the fruit,” Braden explains. However, as Alibrandi previously mentioned, once your fruits are ripe, it’s okay to refrigerate them to help prolong their freshness.
What refrigeration actually does to these foods, according to a food scientist
In short, the cool temperatures of the fridge can change the composition of fresh foods. “Many people don’t realize that your fruits and vegetables are still alive after they’re picked. That means that they continue to react to their environments and are sensitive to stress,” Braden explains. “Refrigeration slows down the biochemical reactions inside of a piece of produce and can disrupt the structure of its cells. That can cause off notes and lead to some pretty funky flavors, as well as change the fruit’s color, texture, and other attributes."
According to Braden, much of the reason why this happens has to do with the water content found in fresh produce. “A piece of fresh fruit or a vegetable also has a significant amount of water in it, which is susceptible to freezing and swelling since water expands to different volumes at different temperatures," she explains.
This is especially true for water-dense fruits, like watermelon, which is 92 percent water. If you leave a watermelon in the back of the fridge, for example, sometimes it can freeze, thaw, and freeze again. That process damages the cells and changes the fruit’s texture. This can happen to any piece of produce that gets too cold, or is cold for too long,” says Braden. However, if you don’t mind a change in texture, she adds that you can certainly freeze fresh fruit once it’s ripe to use in smoothies, soups, sauces, or purees (where textural changes can go unnoticed).
Where should you should store these foods if they’re *not* in the fridge
Alibrandi and Braden both say that you can simply store these foods on the counter where they can naturally ripen. “A lot of produce stores really well on the kitchen countertop, as long as it’s not in direct sunlight or near a heat source. That is especially true for non-climacteric vegetables, like potatoes and onions, that aren’t actively ripening post-harvest,” Braden says.
However, the food scientists both note that they should be kept away from other already-ripe foods. “Don’t store them near foods that are already ripe, as the ethylene gas can cause them to accelerate the rate of ripening,” Alibrandi explains. Research shows that ethylene is a plant hormone that can accelerate ripening and softening by increasing chlorophyll degradation and, in turn, reducing the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.
“If you store an avocado with a banana, for example, they will trigger each other to ripen more quickly. On the other hand, keeping a banana next to an apple or cucumber will not change how quickly the banana goes bad since that produce does not ripen post-harvest,” Braden says. However, if you need to speed up the ripening process, she says that you can store climacteric produce together (like in a paper bag), which can also help speed up the process by trapping the hormones that trigger ripening. This might be especially handy when your avocado is rock-hard, but avo toast is calling your name.
Now, if you have fruits and veggies that are already ripe, giving them ample room to breathe will help prolong their lifespan. “To keep climacteric fruits from ripening too quickly, it’s best to keep them in an open space with plenty of air circulation as opposed to an enclosed place like a cabinet. Because produce is still breathing, it needs oxygen to develop the right way. If you keep a banana or avocado in a plastic bag, it won’t end up with the right flavor,” Braden says.
Don't know what to do with all of your pantry staples? We can help:
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