It’s kind of silly to think of your fruit bowl as a boxing ring, but the apples and peaches are in there right now duking it out to see who goes down first. Why? Because of ethylene gas. Ethylene is a perfectly safe, naturally occurring gas that certain fruits and vegetables produce to help them ripen. Unfortunately, there are also ethylene-sensitive fruits and vegetables that rot at a much faster rate when kept near ethylene producers.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service teamed up with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University to develop the Foodkeeper App for determining ideal food storage practices. Using this tool can help us all learn to store our fruits and vegetables properly, lengthen their shelf life, and put an end to the fruit bowl battles.
These first 10 foods are the fruits and vegetables that produce the most ethylene, making them a threat to the ideal shelf life of other fresh produce. Note that some of these foods are also sensitive to fellow ethylene-producers. You might also notice that most of these first 10 foods are fruit. Ethylene-producing foods are often those that grow well above the ground, with some exceptions like potatoes.
The next 10 foods are all considered ethylene-sensitive, and decay quickly when exposed to ethylene from other fruits and vegetables. Many of these foods also give off small amounts of the gas during the ripening process, but very little in comparison to the list of foods above. Just remember not to mix ethylene-sensitive foods with ethylene-producing ones, whether stored in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer.
Apples are first on this list because they start with an A, but they’re also a top ethylene-producing fruit. The apples in your fridge or pantry release enough natural ethylene to threaten the shelf life of much of your other produce. It’s best to take them out of your mixed fruit bowl and store them separately. Apples on the counter or in the pantry have a shelf life of about three weeks. Kept in the fridge, they can last four to six weeks. Did you know that apples freeze well too? When frozen, apples can last up to eight months.
Once an avocado is picked, it begins to release ethylene and start to ripen. The rate of ethylene released increases over time. When the skin becomes dark and the flesh underneath (called the mesocarp) feels tender, an avocado is ripe and ready to eat. A ripe avocado can last up to five days in the fridge. If you want it to ripen more quickly, put it in the pantry or on the kitchen counter, but definitely store it separately from ethylene-sensitive foods. If you freeze avocado, peel and mash it up first. This will help prevent it from browning while thawing.
Have you ever bought a bunch of bananas from the market that were bound together with plastic wrap at the stems? This practice slows the release of ethylene, which occurs mainly through the stem. Slowing its ethylene release also slows the rate at which a banana turns brown. Another fun banana fact: keeping bananas away from carbon dioxide slows the ripening process too. When bananas become ripe, they have a shelf life of about three to four days in the refrigerator, or as long as two to three months in the freezer.
The honeydew melon produces ethylene as it ripens, but even more so once it’s cut open. For this reason, it’s best to store honeydew whole until you’re prepared to eat it. You can store it for around two weeks in the fridge or up to a month in the freezer. Once cut into, the delicious flesh of this melon will last only a few more days.
By the way, if you’ve been storing honeydew next to cantaloupe, you won’t get as much shelf life out of the latter. Cantaloupe is sensitive to honeydew’s ethylene.
The mango is ethylene-producing, but releases less of this natural gas during ripening than other foods in this category. It’s less of a threat to ethylene-sensitive fruits and vegetables, but a threat nonetheless. Store mangoes for one week in the fridge, or up to four days at room temperature. Before freezing mango, test it for ripeness. The flesh under the skin should feel a bit soft when you press it with your finger. If it’s ripe, remove the flesh from the skin and either freeze it in chunks or as a puree. Mango can be stored in the freezer for up to a year.
Pears ripen very quickly, so quickly that pears should probably go directly from your grocery bag to the refrigerator or freezer. The cold temperature will slow down the pears’ ethylene production and give them an extra few days of freshness. For room temperature pears that are already ripe, expect them to last a couple of days. If you put them in the fridge, expect them to be good for up to five days. Frozen pears can last a couple of months, but know how you plan to use them before choosing your freezing method.
14. Plums and Peaches
These two fruits can be stored together without risking their freshness, but be sure not to store them near anything else. Peaches and plums produce increasing levels of ethylene as they ripen. As with most ethylene-producing foods, storing them in the refrigerator slows their gas production down. Plums and peaches last up to five days in the refrigerator, and up to two months when frozen. If you want them to ripen quickly, store them at room temperature for a couple of days.
Just as we point out that most ripe fruits and vegetables last longer in colder temperatures, the potato proves itself an exception to the rule. Potatoes produce much smaller levels of ethylene and actually have a longer shelf life in room temperature. You can store them in the pantry for up to two months. If you keep them in the refrigerator, you might only get about two weeks out of them before they start to turn. Freezing potatoes works well, but cook them beforehand. The shelf life for frozen potatoes is up to one year.
Like pears, strawberries should go directly from the garden or market to cold temperatures for storage. This is because strawberries aren’t picked until they are fully ripe. That gives these beloved red berries a short life span. Slow down their ethylene release by putting them in the refrigerator right away, and store them away from ethylene-sensitive foods. You’ll need to eat strawberries within a few days if storing in the fridge. If frozen, your strawberries can last for about a year.
Good news! Though they’re an ethylene-producer, tomatoes release less gas and do so more slowly while staying fresh longer. Yet, it’s still recommended that tomatoes be sequestered away from ethylene-sensitive foods, in a container all their own. Ripe tomatoes can last as long as a full week in the refrigerator, but there’s an important reason why you might choose room temperature storage instead. Tomatoes might lose some of their taste when stored in the fridge too long. Try storing them in different ways, then conduct a taste test after a few days to see if you can detect a difference in flavor.
Ethylene-sensitive asparagus toughens quite easily after ripening, so it should always be stored in cold temperatures. If you keep it frozen, asparagus has a shelf life of about five months. Stored in the refrigerator, ripe asparagus will stay fresh up to four days. To keep your refrigerated asparagus even fresher, trim the stems and stand the whole bunch (bound with rubber bands) in an inch or two of water in a glass container. Then cover the bunch with a small plastic bag and top off the water level again when needed. Asparagus stored using this method can last up to a week.
Broccoli should be stored in cold temperatures, as well. When refrigerated separately from ethylene-producing foods, broccoli can stay fresh up to five days. However, if you store it with foods releasing ethylene, you’ll shorten the shelf life of that same broccoli by as much as 50 percent! Yellowing of the florets happens pretty quickly in even the best of settings, so give broccoli its own dedicated storage space and eat it soon after buying. If you can’t get to it for meal prep soon, definitely store it in the freezer for up to a year.
8. Brussels Sprouts
Like broccoli, Brussels sprouts will begin to turn yellow when exposed to the ethylene produced by other foods. Though it should be noted that Brussels sprouts release a bit of ethylene themselves, they’re still sensitive to this naturally occurring gas from other fruits and vegetables. Also like broccoli, Brussels sprouts last up to a year in the freezer and up to five days in the fridge.
You’ll know when ethylene-sensitive carrots have been exposed to too much ethylene from other foods. Just give them a quick taste. If they’ve become bitter, it’s too late. Next time, keep the carrots away from the ethylene producers like tomatoes. When stored properly, carrots can last in the fridge for quite a long time compared to some other vegetables — up to three weeks. In the freezer, you can get 10 to 12 months of shelf life from carrots. If you store them at room temperature, they stay fresh for only about five days.
As you might have expected, cauliflower behaves similarly to broccoli when exposed to ethylene. The florets begin to yellow and leaves drop off the main stalk. Keep cauliflower away from fruit, potatoes and tomatoes and don’t buy or use it if it has a foul smell. If it does, it’s way past ripe and no longer fresh enough to eat. Refrigerate cauliflower for up to five days, or freeze it for up to a year. We recommend removing any cellophane it comes wrapped in first, since cauliflower can rot more quickly in tight wrappings.
The cucumber is a member of the gourd family, and gourds are known for being ethylene-sensitive. Though storing cucumbers in the freezer isn’t recommended, they can last up to a week stored in the fridge. If kept near ethylene-producing foods, cucumbers will turn yellow and go bad pretty quickly. You might be able to add a few extra days of freshness to cucumbers if you wrap them in a paper towel and keep them in a food storage bag in the refrigerator.
4. Fresh Herbs
Before tossing your fresh herbs in the crisper drawer near the tomatoes and avocado, note that most herbs are sensitive to ethylene to varying degrees. Herbs like basil, thyme and rosemary won’t go bad as quickly, but parsley, mint and oregano are highly sensitive to exposure. The easiest solution is to store herbs in a special container for that purpose, in the freezer or refrigerator. Fresh herbs stored in the freezer last up to two months. Stored in the fridge, these herbs stay fresh for up to 10 days.
3. Leafy Greens and Lettuce
You better eat those salad greens right away, or they might go bad from ethylene exposure before you know it. Different greens have different freshness expiration dates, but most of them are ethylene-sensitive and require cold storage. Lettuce bagged at the market will stay fresh for only about five days in the refrigerator. Spinach can last up to a full week. Romaine lettuce can last up to two weeks. Here’s a quick tip for green salads: serve the ingredients in separate containers that can be closed and stored in the fridge. Keeping your leftover greens away from your leftover tomatoes will make them all last longer.
Onions can last for up to a month at room temperature, but there’s one common household mistake that will cut their lives short. Storing onions near ethylene-producing potatoes is a quick way to encourage the onions to sprout and rot. Ethylene-sensitive onions do much better in cold storage away from potatoes and other ethylene producing foods. Freezing onions works well, and gives them a shelf life of around 10 to 12 months. With onions stored properly in the refrigerator, they can last nearly two months.
1. Squash and Pumpkins
You’d think with those tough exteriors, squash and pumpkins would be safe against ethylene exposure. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The number of days they’ll stay fresh depends on the types of squash. Pumpkins can stay fresh at room temperature for up to three months, and a couple of months longer if you put them in the fridge. Winter squash can stay in the pantry up to six weeks, up to three months when refrigerated, and up to a year in the freezer. Summer squash stays fresh about five days at room temperature, up to three months in the fridge, and about one year in the freezer.