Staying home, being in quarantine or in isolation has brought out the latent cook in us all. Not saying that we’re all turning out to be Masterchefs, but I think that for the most part, people are learning to feed themselves and their families, and in the process, pick up a life skill. Look on the bright side!
A little while ago, I told you that I was having a problem getting in and storing fresh vegetables and greens, and that provided me with a challenge all on its own. But I’ve since solved that problem, and in the process, learnt something new.
After so many years of cooking (something I enjoy and have been doing even prior to this), I’ve finally worked out how to properly store fresh vegetables, herbs and aromatics, so they last longer.
In the past, I usually bought only enough to last me a few days or a week, so I’d usually just toss them into the vegetable drawer in the fridge, and leave them there. I had no real incentive to figure out how to properly store to keep them fresher for longer.
But now, I buy vegetables in greater quantities, and I did not want to waste all the herbs and aromatics that are delivered in larger quantities than I’m used to. So, I did some research, tested out different methods, and found the ones that worked for me. Perhaps they’ll help you too :)
I compiled and tested most of these tips after researching vegetable storage on the internet. There are many websites out there that offer tips, but I found that not all worked.
I also realized that many tips did not cater for those of us living in Asia or South-East Asia, where our weather and climate does not allow us to keep vegetables of any sort on the counter or at room temperature, without them going bad quickly. Almost everything keeps better in the fridge or freezer.
Here are some of the tips I’ve put into practice, and have found to be useful.
Prep your vegetables and work space
Before you begin, it is helpful to first, prep your work space and vegetables, and get everything you need in one place.
The things I need to prep my vegetables for storage are:
- A chopping board
- A knife
- Kitchen paper towels
- Storage boxes
- Ziplock bags
- Plastic bags
Keep your vegetables separately
The trick to keeping vegetables fresh for longer, I realized, is to ensure that like is kept with like. If you separate your vegetables and keep them away from each other, they do not decay as quickly as there is less cross-contamination.
I also found that reducing moisture helps the vegetables stay fresh longer. A little moisture is important, but if you have kept vegetables in a box or a bag in the fridge, you will notice that there is a lot of moisture and water forming in the bag. If this moisture builds up, the vegetables decay more quickly. The trick is to balance this level of moisture.
I find kitchen paper towels, or even newspaper (if you even have any these days) the best for this purpose. They absorb excess moisture, while keeping just enough moisture for the vegetables to remain fresh.
Keep vegetables wrapped or in a box
Keeping vegetables wrapped up or in a box helps prevent bruising, but also helps them stay fresher, as they don’t get exposed and dry up or wilt.
I found that if I wrapped the plant all around, including the leaves, as opposed to just wrapping the stems, the vegetables stayed fresher for longer. For this purpose, I find an airtight box useful.
Clean your vegetables before storing
Clean the vegetables and remove all diseased, wilted or decayed leaves or items before keeping. This ensures that you don’t contaminate the other vegetables, and also helps them stay fresher for longer. Remove also all rubberbands.
You can wash them before you store, but you must dry them thoroughly before keeping. I find it takes too much time to do that, so I wash my vegetables before using instead.
Before storing, I separate out the vegetables into stalks, cut off the ends (don’t break with your hands, as a knife gives a cleaner cut and helps it remain fresher longer) wipe them down with a piece of kitchen paper towel, removing as much dirt and moisture as possible, and then store.
And now we begin :)
Leafy Vegetables and Salad leaves
Leafy vegetables tend to be rather delicate. These are vegetables like sawi (mustard greens), bok choy, kai lan (chinese kale), spinach etc. There are a few ways I store them.
This works: Wrapped in newspaper/kitchen towel and kept in a plastic bag
This is a traditional method of keeping vegetables, that I’ve seen my grandmother and mother use. I didn’t quite believe in it, but let’s just say that the old folks got it absolutely right this time :P
I like using this method with hardier vegetables like lady’s fingers, carrots, radish, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and chinese lettuce. You can also use this with big bunches of leafy vegetables e.g. spinach, kangkung etc. Basically, if it’s hard to find a box big enough for your fridge, this method works.
Completely wrap each bunch of head of vegetable with a large piece of newspaper or multiple pieces of kitchen paper towel. Ensure it is fully wrapped.
Then place the package into a plastic bag and enclose it completely. Label, because it can be hard to recognise when you have a few similar looking packages in your vegetable crisper drawer. I usually reuse the plastic bags the vegetables come in when I buy.
The newspaper absorbs the excess moisture and prevents too much air from circulating around the vegetable, while the plastic bag traps and provides enough moisture so the vegetable is kept fresher.
I’ve managed to keep sawi going for up to a week kept this way. It may wilt a little towards the end, but it rehydrates well once you wash and place them in a bowl/basin of water.
This works: Kept between kitchen paper towels in an airtight box
If my vegetables are in a manageable proportion, I prepare them, clean them, and then store them in airtight boxes.
I first layer a piece of kitchen towel at the base of the box, place the vegetables on top, and then place another piece of kitchen towel on top. The kitchen towel helps absorb excess moisture, and the box keeps the moisture in and excess moisture out.
I find that this method works quite well for storing delicate greens like lettuce leaves or salad leaves for salads, baby spinach etc.
This box of spinach has been kept for more than a week in this fashion, and it is still fairly fresh without wilting or going bad. I do find that it is important to not allow there to be too much air circulation, because then, they can wilt more quickly. Another box of greens I kept in this fashion, but with more space inside, wilted and went yellow in just a few days.
Does not work: Freezing leafy vegetables
Clarification. This does not work for me, as I like my greens fairly fresh. I understand that some people prepare their leafy vegetables e.g. bok choy, and keep them in the freezer to throw into soups.
I tried it once, but I found that it becomes a little mushy and I don’t like that texture. When I put my vegetables in clear noodles soups, I merely blanch them for a few seconds and it retains the crisp bite.
I understand however, that this is a viable method of storing vegetables, and I have nothing against it, except to say that it is not a preferred method for me.
Option: Preparing vegetable stirfry packs
Some people also like preparing one-time use packs of vegetable, so they can just toss in the pan and go when they need it. It is certainly a time-saving move.
This presumes you already know what you want to cook with your vegetables. So what you do is to place everything you need for a stir-fry into one ziplock bag, lined with kitchen paper towel, and keeping it in your vegetable drawer.
When you need to cook, remove a pack, and you have a ready pack of an assortment of vegetables ready for use. Perfect for those with little time, but takes a little more planning.
For large tomatoes, I store them in a box, ensuring they aren’t squashed, between kitchen paper towels. From experience, I’ve found that this is the best way to keep them fresher for longer.
I used to just toss them into the drawer in the bag I buy them in, and that can result in them bruising and then going bad more quickly.
For cherry tomatoes however, I store them in the plastic box they come in. I find they stay fresh longer that way.
Ginger, Galangal (Lengkuas), Lemongrass (Serai)
There are 2 techniques I came across online, both of which I tried to see which suited me better, or lasted longer.
I used to keep ginger and galangal on my counter, and found that it will last a while, but will dry up. I have kept them the same way as I keep vegetables in the fridge, and they went bad. I despaired for a while, but I’ve since found these 2 ways most ideal.
The first, and most popular, is to freeze them.
I first clean the roots, removing the dirt and letting them dry out first, if wet. I don’t wash them, just brush off the dirt and air-dry. Then, I cut the root into chunks, approximately the size that you usually use them, and then pop it into a ziplock bag, and freeze.
I do not peel off the skin first, preferring to do it only when I use it. If you’d like to save time, you can peel off the skin then freeze.
When I want to use it, I remove it from the freezer, allow it to defrost for a few minutes, and slice or grate as I wish.
Keeping your ginger, galangal and lemongrass in the freezer is maintenance-free and keeps the root from spoiling. There is also no loss in flavour or smell. However I do notice that if allowed to fully defrost, the ginger root goes soft. It doesn’t affect the taste or smell, but the texture isn’t crisp. The fridge method as detailed below provides ginger that is more crisp but with a slight loss in flavour.
Personally for me, this is the most ideal way to store ginger, galangal and lemongrass.
Submerged in water
I came across this tip on local websites that suggested that ginger, galangal and lemongrass stalks be stored submerged in water in the fridge. Naturally, I tried it.
For this, I first peeled the skin off the ginger and galangal and cleaned the lemongrass stalks. Then, I cut them to the size that I needed, placed them into a bottle or container, and filled it with clean water.
If you want to use this technique, you must ensure that you change the water every 2 days at minimum, to avoid the water from going slimy and your ingredient from spoiling.
The benefit of this technique is that your ingredient is ready to be used at any time. You do not have to wait for it to defrost, and you can use it immediately.
However, I do feel that there is a loss in flavour, as the water will be infused with the taste of ginger, galangal or lemongrass. You don’t do anything with the water, merely use it to keep the root in suspended animation for a few days.
I have kept roots this way for 2 weeks or so, but I make sure I use up the ingredients before then so I cannot say how long they can really stay fresh this way. It is an interesting technique, but not my preferred technique.
Fresh chillies have been a challenge for me as long as I can remember! I love spicy food, and having fresh chilli condiments with my meals, but keeping chillies from drying out, going mouldy or going bad was such a challenge for me!
I since use 2 ways that are particularly helpful and effective.
For both techniques, you must first remove the stalks from the fresh chillies, and then wipe down the chilli with a kitchen towel. Don’t wash them, and be sure to weed out any chilli that is showing signs of going bad.
Our old friend the freezer comes into play again! :D
Clean the fresh chilli, remove the stalks, and then toss the chillies into a ziplock bag, squeeze out the air, and pop into the freezer.
Chillies kept frozen are best used for cooking or making sambal. You do not have to defrost. Just run them under the tap, clean out the seeds and toss into your cooking pot.
I have also had them freshly cut with soy sauce, as a condiment to noodles or my meal, and to me, it works well as well. It is relatively maintenance free, and you can store them for months in the freezer.
If you’d prefer to have your chillies fresh instead of frozen, you can store them in the fridge using this method, for 2-3 weeks. Yep, WEEKS! Not days! :D
Clean the chillies and remove the stalks. Place them in an airtight box, lined with kitchen towel, add a clove or two of peeled garlic (for some reason, it slows down the aging process), layer another piece of kitchen towel on top, and cover tightly.
Be careful not to overcrowd or squeeze them too tightly in the box. I have stored them this way for 2-3 weeks before they eventually went bad.
This technique works best for those who prefer to eat their chillies fresh as they retain the crisp and bite. But if you might be prone to forgetting about your chillies or don’t eat chillies that often, use the freezer technique. It’s just more practical.
Herbs and Aromatics – Spring Onion (Scallions), Coriander (Cilantro/Chinese Parsley), Pandan leaves, Limau Purut leaves (Kaffir Lime Leaves)
Unless you have a successful herb garden and can have these herbs and aromatics freshly on hand, you’d understand the struggle to buy them. Often, you only need a pinch or a handful, and are left wondering what to do with a big bunch.
Often, for me, they’d end up going bad, or drying out in the fridge. Well, I’ve since worked out how to store them, and I can now have tomyam whenever I want it! :D
With spring onions, I cut the leaves with scissors and freeze them. They don’t freeze into a solid block, which is good, and you can use them directly in your cooking as flavouring or as a garnish. It works.
For coriander/cilantro/chinese parsley, I separate the root and the leaves and freeze them separately. I keep the root as it is used a lot in Thai cooking. The flavour is more subtle, but very unique, and I often do not have the ingredient on hand. Now I do! :D
I simply cut up the leaves, place them in a ziplock back, remove the air and freeze. The leaves can similarly be used as flavouring or as a garnish. To my surprise, the leaves did not turn black in the freezer, which was a pleasant surprise for me.
With Pandan leaves and kaffir lime leaves, I only just discovered I could freeze them too. I clean them, then pop them into ziplock bags, remove the air, and freeze. They don’t turn black and the flavour remains. Before using, I just rinse them under the tap and pop them into my desserts and soups.
If these herbs and aromatics freeze so well, why should I want to keep them in the fridge? Well, sometimes, the flavour and texture is different.
With spring onions, I remove the roots, separate the leaves from the stem as they dry out at different rates, then wrap them up in kitchen paper towels and store in an airtight container. This way, I can use the white parts of the stem for more intense flavour, and the leaves for garnish or a lighter flavour as I see fit.
With coriander, I find it keeps better as a whole plant. So, I clean it, then wrap it in kitchen paper towels, and keep it in an airtight container.
If I have a large supply of both these aromatics, I will keep 2 separate batches for different uses. If I have a smaller batch, I’d just freeze them as I don’t use them that much in my cooking.
Does not work: Keep in water on the counter or in the fridge
A tip I’ve come across many times, and which I’ve tried many times, is to keep the spring onions or coriander in a bottle of water. This way, you can apparently keep them on your counter or in the fridge, and the plant will regrow, offering you better longevity.
Personally speaking, it did not work for me.
To use this technique, you must use just VERY LITTLE WATER. Just enough to cover the base of the bottle/container, enough to cover the roots. If the water covers the stem, that is far too much, and the stem will rot.
Second, you must change the water everyday and remove any dead or rotting parts of the plant. If you don’t, the water will go murky and your plant will rot.
Personally for me, it is too much work. I’ve tried it without much success, and any regrowth is just too insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. If you want to grow it, just plant a shallot or onion into a pot of soil, and enjoy your harvest. It’s more fulfilling that way :P
I’ve struggled a lot with storing basil so it deserves its own category LOL! :D I love cooking with basil in pasta sauces, and making Thai pad kra pow. Basil can be easy to come by here, by sometimes, I end up buying more than I need and it dries out or goes bad.
Recently, I was unable to get any basil at all! So, when I found a big bag, I snapped it up.
A tip I learnt online for keeping basil, that works, is this. Freeze it.
If you freeze basil leaves directly, they will turn black. I did not want to chop it up and store in oil, as many recommend, as I prefer using the leaves as it. The way I eventually did it was thus.
- Remove the leaves from the stalk.
- Boil a pot of water, and blanch the leaves for about 10-15 seconds. Don’t cook it, you just want to blanch it to retain the colour.
- Immediately plunge the leaves into a bowl of iced water.
- Lay the leaves out individually and flat on a tray and freeze.
- Once frozen, place into a ziplock bag, remove the air and freeze.
I found that the leaves retained their green colour. You won’t be able to use them as fresh basil toppings, but you can use it directly in cooking, which is good enough by me! :D
I’ve found that I’ve managed to make these tips work with most vegetables I store. The real key take away for me is this : social distancing between vegetables help them stay fresher for longer!
And if that’s not a reflection of these unusual times right now, I don’t know what is LOL! :D
Have you tried any of these tips for storing fresh vegetables? Do you have other tips to share?
I’m all ears if you have them, and I’m game enough to try anything once! So hit me with your (or your mum’s tips!) :D