At one point or another, we’ve all unearthed a bunch of wilted kale or some shriveled rainbow carrots from the back of the crisper and wanted to sob out loud.
Avoiding that tragic situation just requires a bit of planning and effort! As with anything you love, it’s crucial to treat vegetables right. Not only will this maximize their flavor, it will also help prevent food waste (which, as you may know, is a huge problem in the U.S. and across the world).
We’ve got you covered with some expert tips and tricks for veg prep to help you become an even more efficient, savvy home cook!
Side note: We’ll be adding in some items that are generally considered part of the vegetable canon, like zucchini, avocado, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Pampering your produce starts from the moment you unload your farmers market haul. First things first: Clean your veggies. This way, they’re ready to go whenever you want to start cooking. There’s no need to use soap, detergent, or a vegetable cleaning product; the main goal here is to remove dirt, bugs, and bacteria and a rinse of cold water will accomplish that.
Firm veg, like potatoes, beets, squash, carrots, and cucumbers can be scrubbed with a vegetable brush (even if you don’t plan to eat the peels). More delicate items, like broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell peppers can simply be rinsed off.
Greens and leafy herbs can be soaked in cold water, then patted dry. Or, for bonus points, you can prep all of the greens, rinse and dry them in a salad spinner, and store them in a plastic or reusable silicone bag (see below for more on this).
Papery items, like onions, shallots, and garlic do not need to be washed.
How and where you store the veggies makes a huge impact on their taste and texture, as well as how long they last. Proper storage has another purpose, too: When your produce is nicely put away, you can see what you’ve got on hand, and you’re less likely to let veggies slip past their prime.
Some vegetables should not go into the fridge. These include garlic and onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes, regular and cherry tomatoes, avocados, winter squash, and fresh herbs. Herbs should be stored with the stems in a glass jar of water like a bouquet of flowers, and the rest can be stored in bowls. Do not store potatoes with onions (or apples or bananas), which produces ethylene gas that can make potatoes spoil faster.
Cucumbers, corn, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, summer squash, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, celery, peas, and peppers should also find a nice spot to stay cool in the refrigerator. Instead of cramming everything into the produce drawer, spread things out a bit on the shelves.
Anything you’ll use more frequently, like greens or sprouts, can live on an upper shelf. Greens like kale and spinach will last even longer if, after washing, you gently bundle them in a cloth or paper towel and tuck them into a sealed container or storage bag.
You can also use small, clear storage bins or bowls to keep your produce organized in the fridge. However, when it comes to mushrooms, keep them in their original packaging or in a paper bag to prolong freshness.
Forward-thinking prepping lets you get even more out of your vegetable stash. Sometimes, this means breaking down a head of cauliflower, de-ribbing swiss chard, or breaking down brussels sprouts before you even put them away. The time you invest up front saves you time when you’re making a recipe in the future.
We also love techniques that maximize as much of the vegetable as possible (just like we do with yellow peas when making ZENB pasta). For instance, beets, carrots, and radishes often come with their greens attached, which are edible and delicious. Cut them off and wash and store them as you would with any greens; use them in salads, pestos, and stir-fries!
Save the odds and ends from vegetables to make DIY vegetable broth. Keep a storage bag in the freezer to hold all of your potato and carrot peels, herb stems, onion ends, garlic paper, mushroom stems, etc. Once the bag is full, put the scraps in a stockpot, cover everything with water, season to taste, let it come to a boil, then simmer for an hour or two. Carefully strain it through a fine mesh sieve and you’ve got a nutrient-packed stock that you can use in soups, risotto, sauces, and more!