How to keep produce clean, fresh and healthy

Yesterday, I discussed the many popular foods that you need not — and should not — refrigerate. It’s particularly fitting at this time of year, considering the abundance of produce from late-summer harvests.

And although you might not have to refrigerate all your produce, you should always clean it — particularly since both chemical and microbial contaminants are increasingly problematic.

So, here are my tips for keeping your fresh produce clean…

Clean, clean, and then clean again

Before handling produce, wash your hands with good, old-fashioned soap and water. Make sure you also use the same technique to properly clean your countertop, sink, utensils, and cutting board.

Then, turn to your produce…

While no cleaning method completely removes all microbes, thoroughly rinsing fresh produce with clean water effectively reduces the number of germs on your food.

You’ll never truly remove all germs…outside a sterile operating room. (And even then, it’s questionable. Depending on the hospital and circumstances…)

Fortunately, to actually develop an infection, the dose of germs needs to be high enough to overcome your initial defense mechanisms. Furthermore, we now know that living in an overly clean environment, with less routine exposure to germs, may interfere with normal immune function and contribute to the development of common cancers.

Of course, a thorough washing also helps clean away dirt, tenacious garden pests, and residual pesticides. (Unfortunately, some pesticides are so pervasive, they make their way into the interior of the fruit or vegetable itself. That’s why I recommend buying organic produce whenever you can.)

Just avoid harsh detergents, as many types of produce are porous and can absorb cleaning agents — which is not something you want to be eating with your daily servings of fruits and veggies.

Likewise, I’ve seen some special “fruit and vegetable” washes at the market. But I’ve never seen any scientific evidence on what they actually do — good, bad, or nothing.

Instead, I tend to keep it pretty simple…

Divide and conquer your produce

As for green, leafy vegetables, I recommend soaking them in a big bowl of cold, clean water. This method allows the leaves to separate and loosen any sand or dirt. Dunk them a couple times in the water to shake it all out. This method also works well with leafy herbs like cilantro, dill and parsley.

You can also add a splash of vinegar to water (one half-cup vinegar per one cup water) for the initial rinse, if you wish. Then rinse the greens again. Several studies show that this method reduces microbial contamination.

However, I should note that this vinegar wash may slightly change the texture and taste — which I personally enjoy. (You can always experiment with the vinegar to water ratio to find a combination suitable to your taste.)

In fact, when I was young, I spent summers on my grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania (which is still being run by my uncle). There, we’d add some red wine vinegar to fresh-picked, cooked vegetables — such as asparagus, broccoli, and green beans. It’s essentially the same concept as adding vinegar to a fresh salad of lettuce and greens.

For firm produce — such as apples, cucumbers, and root vegetables — use a bristled scrub brush under running water.

With soft fruits such as berries and cherries, just wash them under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. This method works well for peaches too.

In fact, now that we’re in peach season throughout most parts of the country, just do as they say in the Allman Brothers Band song, and “eat a peach.”