Summer vegetables, those treasures born of the heat and hailing from equatorial origins, have different storage needs than you’re average carrot, beet, or head of kale. These vegetables - tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and zucchini to name a few, are fragile… not unlike our sanity in these sweltering summer days. These vegetables are mostly tender-skinned and are more susceptible to “chilling injury” which can happen when the too-cold of a refrigerator can “burn” their soft selves. The only acceptable burn this summer is the one on your shoulders after a long afternoon at Barton Springs. Vegetable burn and chilling injury? That’s avoidable. ;)
What is chilling injury? Chances are, you’ve seen this. Your okra turned black after only a couple of days, your eggplant has brown, discolored soft spots, and your tomato has a weird and (let’s be honest) pretty gross soft blister that is threatening a leak. Or maybe that perfect-looking tomato ends up being a mealy mess, more wet grit than juicy wonder. All of these common forms of damage are most likely attributed to improper storage.
Let’s dive in with a few summer vegetable storage tips to help you get the most out of your summer shares.
TIP 1: Check your fridge temp.
The FDA recommends that your refrigerator temperature is at or below 40°. Anything above this temp, and bacteria will grow too quickly, your food will spoil. However, anything in the 32°-35° range is definitely too cold for summer vegetable storage. Check your fridge temp (consider buying an external thermometer), and aim to keep your temp between 35°-39° when storing summer produce. Most refrigerators have “cold spots” - usually located in the back or near the freezer compartment. Avoid these cold zones when storing summer produce. Usually, your crisper drawer remains the warmest zone when the drawer is closed properly.
TIP 2: Make quick food.
A common theme with summertime produce is that it must be eaten quickly once arriving in your home. The shelf life and storage ability of a tomato just isn’t the same as that of a hearty root crop, like a turnip. It’s simply the nature of the thing. Learn to lean into quick, cold food during the summer. Buy a loaf of bread, a jar of olives, and pair with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for dinner. Quickly roasted eggplant over rice, and that’s it. Cold soba noodles with whatever needs using. Don’t overcomplicate your summer meal plans if you know that means you may not get enjoy the produce before it goes bad. A simple tray of roasted okra that can come together in 10 minutes is better than no okra at all.
TIP 3: Be gentle:
“Soft, soft,” said the mother to the toddler hammer-petting the cat’s head. Also said the farmer to her customers handling summer produce. Summer produce is prone to knicks and scrapes, and any tear in its protective skin will invit
e microbial growth resulting in quicker de
cay. Avoid unnecessary bruises, and your produce will last longer. Also: wait to wash your vegetables until you’re ready to use them.
Skip the fridge, eat when ripe. When tomatoes are stored in a fridge, the chemical makeup changes. Enzymatic activity slows, leading to a decrease in flavor intensity, softening of texture, and a loss of aroma (essential to flavor!). The cold temperature also causes the breakdown of cell walls, resulting in a mealy texture, while impacting the balance of sugars and acids, potentially reducing sweetness and tanginess.
Tomatoes should be stored on the counter. Avoid sunny and warm spots, and instead pick tabletops or countertops with dark, cool corners. Unless you’re trying to speed up the ripening, remove tomatoes from a bag (if that’s how they came) and lay them flat on a plate or tray so that the ripening ethylene gasses don’t accumulate. We’re a fan of storing tomatoes stem-side down, making sure to remove the green stem, or calyx. Once tomatoes are ripe, they should be eaten within a day or two. Like a dog bouncing with a leash in its mouth, a ripe tomato begs to be eaten immediately. This celerity is partly what makes summertime eating - quick cold salads and entire meals of melon - so ideal for a hot day when you crave light, cold, and slightly acidic fare.
Exception to the rule: If you only use half a tomato, and are storing a cut tomato, go for the fridge. With insides on the outsides, a cut tomato on the counter will surely mold and decay quickly. Duh.
Fresh okra should be eaten within 3-4 days of it arriving to your home. In the right conditions, you may be able to get away with a week. Unless you have a secondary cooler set at 45°, store your okra in a bag, in your crisper drawer. You can either put your okra in a brown bag that you’ve loosely rolled closed, or in a plastic bag that either has a couple of holes poked in it or is left slightly ajar. Take a quick look into your okra bag or container when unpacking your CSA share and remove any leaves or damaged fruit that might have made its way to you. Last, throw a clean, dry paper towel into your okra bag to help absorb extra moisture.
If you know you won’t get around to eating your okra in 2-3 days, you may be better off washing, chopping, and freezing your okra for a future stew or stirfry. Or, quickly pickle your pods.
Eggplant is best stored at around 54°, significantly warmer than a safe fridge temp, but certainly cooler than a Texas kitchen in July. Oh, the conundrum! The easiest answer to this predicament is just to eat your eggplants quickly. But if you’re not set up to stop, chop, and roll, you can either choose to store your eggplant in your refrigerator crisper drawer or in the coolest, darkest, part of your kitchen or house, for that matter. (Eggplant in the coat closet? Why not.) A dark pantry, situated away from ethylene-producing fruit like tomatoes and bananas, is a good spot to try.
Eggplant will usually hold up to 2-3 days in the fridge but will start to suffer chilling damage if stored at fridge temps for much longer. The long, Asian varieties of eggplant may last a bit longer than the Italian ones. Unsure whether to go the fridge or countertop route? Why not a/b test it and see which frui
t holds its texture and flavor longer? Or, just eat your eggplant sticky-style, shallow fried and dressed with harissa and maple.
Do you have a wine fridge? Yeah, us either. But in case you do, storing temperamental summer vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, melon, basil, and even tomatoes in a wine fridge set at 45° to 50° (perfect for your sparkling whites and rosés) is an excellent way to prolong their shelf life. At the farm, we have several large walk-in coolers, and during the summer months, we essentially set one to wine-mode, keeping it at around 45° temp to properly store crops our okra, eggplant, and zucchini. Even potatoes will last longer in a wine fridge at 45°. Spuds and sauvignon, c’est chic.