These common mistakes defy the fridge's purpose in life, which is to keep things fresh and edible.
The refrigerator is a magical box; a modern convenience that allows us to keep food fresh much longer than we would be able to otherwise. But it is also a master of deceit that can easily swallow up the abundance of foods we feed it, turning them into alien life forms and things that look like they belong on the forest floor. This is especially true in the era of the ginormous fridge (and one of the reasons we advocate for smaller refrigerators around here). Big box shopping doesn’t help, either.
Misusing the refrigerator helps Americans reach the sad milestone of wasting nearly a pound of food every day, which works out to around 30 percent of the average American's daily calories – not to mention the expense. Fortunately, a little know-how can help save a lot of food from an ignominious death in the icebox. Here are some of the more common mistakes to avoid.
1. Putting the wrong produce in the fridgeNot all produce wants to be in the refrigerator. Keep tomatoes, melons, potatoes, garlic, citrus, and onions out – the fridge can affect their taste and texture. Only put bananas, nectarines, pears, peaches, and avocados in the fridge if they are threatening to become over ripe. (The peel on bananas will turn black in the fridge, but the flesh will be ok.) In the meantime, apples look good in a bowl on the counter, but they prefer the fridge.
2. Washing produce incorrectly before you store itMany people swear by doing weekly meal prep and washing all the produce as soon as they get home from the market. This can make using up your vegetables easier – but if they are not thoroughly dried, the residual moisture can lead to bacterial growth, mold, and the dreaded slime. I like to wash my greens and spread them out on a big bath towel on the counter, let them dry for a while, and then finish the job by rolling up the towel to get all the last bit of moisture out.
3. Keeping bread in the fridgeThe refrigerator pulls the moisture out of bread and other baked goods, making it stale and much less appetizing. The secret miracle trick is to keep it in the freezer and bring out what you need when you need it; it thaws in no time and tastes as fresh as the minute it went in. If you have a whole loaf or baguette, slice it before freezing.
4. Keeping herbs in a bag in a drawerNobody likes to reach into the bag of herbs to discover a handful of cilantro-flavored pond scum. Store your herbs in a glass of water with a bag loosely covering them. I keep my “vases” of herbs in the tall shelf of the refrigerator door where the milk usually goes. See #5
5. Using the door shelves for more perishable itemsEven though the obvious place for milk is the tall shelf in the door, experts suggest that this is not the best place for the more sensitive items. Like milk. It is the place in the fridge that sees the most fluctuations in temperature. Things like dairy, eggs, and meat should live in the colder parts, which is usually in the back.
6. Letting your greens become slimyMuch like herbs, greens can become slimy. One trick is to throw a paper towel in the bag with them to help absorb moisture. Once it is damp, remove it and let it air dry so you can use it in the next batch. (We don’t use paper towels at my house, but I have had luck using small absorbent dishtowels.)
7. Putting new food in frontThe oldest food should always take center stage. When you get home from the market, take the old food out, put the new food in back, and then replace the old food in the front.
8. Keeping canned things in cansEven if you cook as many things from scratch as possible, there may still be occasional things in cans. Maybe it's chickpeas, maybe it's tomatoes, maybe it's chipotle peppers. And it may seem more efficient to keep those things in cans once they're opened; why dirty a storage container when the food came with its own? But there is a very good reason to decant your canned food and put in a new container: If you leave it in the can, it will begin to taste ... canny. And stale, metallic-tasting food is a quick candidate for the trash. (Epicurious explains that it's not a health issue, by the way, which is interesting.) Just make sure whatever you're transferring the food to is nice and clean; I find that little recycled jam jars are perfect for occasion.
9. Hiding the leftoversYou know what doesn’t get eaten? Little bits of leftovers that are hiding in covered dishes or packets of aluminum foil in the back of the fridge. Invest in a good set of see-through glass storage containers that allow your leftovers to plea for your attention.
10. Not having a "scraps" containerA little leftover onion here, a half a carrot there – it is easy to toss disparate prepped leftover bits nonchalantly into the fridge … or trash. If you keep a storage container or bag in your produce drawer, you always have a place for them to gather. It can work as a wonderful secret stash when throwing a meal together; the bits can go into soups, sauces, beans, omelets, pasta dishes, even the glorious leftovers tart. Check the container regularly to make sure nothing is going south; and if things start to go sad or limp, make a beautiful vegetable stock with it all.
Updated: November 21, 2019