Food & Drink

Huge Storage Mistakes That Are Ruining Your Food

Fredy Delgado/Thrillist

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet multiple dollars that you’re storing your food wrong. No, wait. I’m willing to bet Euros. Hell, I’ll bet Yuan that you’re screwing it up in ways that cost you money and wreck your meals at least once a week.

Thing is, storing your food isn’t that thing you do before and after cooking a delicious meal. It’s an important part of the whole process. Do it right before you cook, and your ingredients will be able to do your cooking mojo justice. Do it wrong, and it can wreck even the best chef’s best efforts.

So let’s take a quick tour around the Food Plate and see what you’re doing wrong, and how you can knock that shit off.

moldy strawberries
LaMiaFotografia/Shutterstock

You're treating all your fruits the same… and ruining them

The mistake people make about produce is they treat all of it the same. Step one: bung it in a produce drawer. Step two: wait. Step three is either using the produce in a less-than-ideal condition or throwing away gross produce way earlier than necessary.

Step three becomes necessary because, get this, different plants require different kinds of storage. I know, right? Mind. Blown. There are too many different kinds of fruit to tell you about every single one, but here are the worst offenders.

First, there’s a whole spectrum of fruit you shouldn’t keep in the fridge at all. Melons, citrus, bananas, nectarines, peaches, pears, and many berries should stay on the counter or up in one of those cool produce baskets. In some cases, a fruit degrades faster in the cold than at room temperature. In others, the cold prevents them from ripening so they stay less delicious than they otherwise would.

Second, you have your wash-and-store crowd. Yes, you need to rinse or wash your fruit before eating it because pesticides. But if you wash before you store, the excess moisture can speed up how quickly the stuff rots. Store them directly after taking them out of the bag, and wash just before you eat them.

Your vegetables need extra love and attention

A lot of mistakes people make with veggies are the same as fruits. You don’t want to wash-and-store them, either. You can’t just bung them in the produce drawer and hope for the best. And you want to store your garlic, onions, potatoes, herbs, squashes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants at room temperature. 

Inside the fridge, the big mistake is treating all refrigerated veggies the same. Instead, different kinds need different storage. You should put a paper towel in with any of your leafy greens like spinach, kale, or lettuce. It will absorb the excess moisture that turns them into that green sludge. Stem veggies like broccoli and asparagus do well if you store them like you would a bouquet of flowers. Cut a little off the end of the stem, then keep the end wet with a moist towel or by submerging it in a shallow dish of water. 

“You’re trying to balance moisture retention against too much moisture, which can accelerate rot and mold,” says Daniel Gritzer, cook and food journalist for Serious Eats. He uses carrots to illustrate the problem. “You stick a bag of carrots in the fridge and forget to tear the bag open, then water condenses and the carrots get all slimy and gross. Or conversely, you leave them naked in the bin and they dry out. There’s a middle ground you’re aiming for.”

Moldy cheese on a plate
Marina Kutukova/Shutterstock

You're being duped on your dairy

The biggest food-storage mistake people make with dairy is buying too much at once. You go to the store and buy a gallon of milk, a quart of sour cream, or a super-size thing of creamer even though you live alone and only use the milk for dunking cookies anyway. Half a month later, the milk is semi-solid, so is the creamer, and the sour cream sports a coating of mold big enough to cure the Black Plague. Buy what you’ll use, then go buy some more.

On the other side of the spectrum, people throw away their dairy products when they’re still good, just because that expiration date says to. Remember: that date is more about a grocery store's need to move merchandise than a magical countdown clock for a culinary fridge bomb. Use the sniff test and check for mold. If it passes, just prioritize recipes that call for that bit of dairy.

Beyond those two usual suspects, we’re down to specific techniques for specific dairy products. Things that come in a tub or a bottle, you should just keep closed and put in the cooler part of your fridge. Not the door. Keep blocks of hard cheese in your vegetable drawer, where they’ll be good for months. High-water cheeses like mozzarella do best if you keep them in water. Put it in a plastic container, and change the water every two days.

Finally, give your cheese a chance to return to room temperature before eating it. You’ll be shocked -- shocked I tell you -- by how much difference it makes.

You're sending your meat to the danger zone

Okay, yes. You know this one, smarty pants. Keep all meat below 40 degrees Farenheit unless you are actively cooking it. But that’s only where meat-storing mojo begins.

First, you’ve gotta stop leaving your meat out, even for a little bit. Don’t let leftover meat cool on the stove or in the plastic storage bins. Don’t marinate it on the counter, or thaw it by just letting it sit in the kitchen. The food-borne nasties that happen with meat can only happen in the “danger zone”of 40 to 140. The faster it moves through that zone, the less danger you’re in.

If you want to get fancy, Gritzer suggests dry-brining meats you’re going to store for a couple of days. Place it in the fridge on an oven rack sitting on a baking sheet to catch the drippings.

As for seafood, Jeremy Woodrow of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says fish does best if you freeze it early. Unless you’re planning to eat it within 48 hours of purchase, put it in the fridge. Even a year properly frozen isn’t too long for some fish species. You can even cook it frozen without compromising the taste or texture.

cardboard crates of fresh white, yellow and brown eggs
EQRoy/Shutterstock

The essential rules of everything else

Then there’s the other stuff. It used to be the peak of the food pyramid, and now it’s not really on the plate anymore. But some of the miscellaneous food items can be the trickiest or least intuitive. Keep in mind these last commandments of proper food storage.

Thou shalt refrigerate your eggs if you bought them refrigerated. If you bought them warm, you can leave them warm.

Thou shalt keep your cooking oils in a cool, dry place, out of the light.

Thou shalt take your spices off the wall and put them someplace across the kitchen from the stove, away from the light.

Thou shalt move thy baking staples out of the paper bags and into an airtight wooden, plastic, or metal container.

Thou shalt store foods that absorb taste (like rice, flour, and oatmeal) away from foods that give off strong odors.

Finally, kids, organize your damn kitchen. It's huge. Knowing what’s in your fridge and pantry, where it is, when it got there, and how it’s doing is Job One for food storage. It does you no good to supercharge your storage mojo if you’re just going to leave it there for weeks on end, or buy so much you can never eat it all in time.

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Jason Brick is a voracious reader, heroic drinker, and super-cool dad (not necessarily in that order of importance). When not testing the theoretical limits of coolness, he practices martial arts so he can beat people up for teasing him about how much he likes playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find out more at BrickCommaJason.com.