What you need to know about washing fruits and veggies

When it comes to kitchen prep, everyone worries about whether or not the food they’re serving is really, really clean. When it comes to produce, it can be a little intimidating. We don’t know where our food has been, after all, and we don’t know what it’s been through before we pick it up in the grocery store or off the stall at the farmers’ market. Let’s look at everything you need to know about washing your produce, no matter where it came from, and some ways to help you make sure you’re keeping your family safe.

What, exactly, are you washing off and how much of it is there?

Ever grabbed an apple for a quick snack without washing it? Everyone has — everyone who likes apples, at least. It probably tasted fine, too, so why do we have to wash all of our favorite fruits and veggies?

Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases a pair of lists compiled with data from the FDA and the USDA. The Dirty Dozen is a list of the fruits and vegetables that were found to have the highest concentrations of pesticide residues still on them, and EWG notes that across the thousands of samples tested, some still tested positive for pesticides after they were washed and even peeled. Some — like strawberries, apples, and peaches — had pesticide residue on up to 98 percent of the samples tested. Even more shocking are the findings that hot peppers and leafy greens all contained samples that were tainted with insecticides not just dangerous for pests, but to humans, too. They’re not on the Dirty Dozen, so even produce that’s not on the list can still contain dangerous chemicals.

That means even the cleanest types of fruits and vegetables still contained some types of pesticides. And that’s why washing all produce — no matter which list it’s on — is important.

Clean your work surface first

It’s incredibly easy to overlook, and according to the guidelines from The University of Maine, you should always give your work area a quick once-over at a particular point in the prep process. They recommend making sure you wash your work surface completely between peeling off any outer skins and cutting or slicing up the veggies into their final form, an easy step to skip that can lead to the transfer of bacteria.

While you probably keep your utensils, knives and peelers all clean, you should also know that slicing through fruits and veg can transfer bacteria from the skin into the meat of the fruit. The best way to prep not just your cutting board but your counter, too, is to wash the entire area with hot water and soap before you start cutting. (Cleaning your work area also includes washing your hands, first, for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap!)

Why you should wait to wash

Washing your fruits and veggies is all done to stop the spread of bacteria and to get rid of any unwanted residue that’s left behind from the growing process, so there’s probably a certain school of thought that says you don’t want any of that dirt or bacteria in your fridge, either. But if you’re tempted to wash your produce right when you get it home, you should wait.

Washing your produce before storing it can actually do more harm than good, and not only is the dampness going to create the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, but it’s also going to speed up the process in which your food goes bad. In most cases, fruits and vegetables have been prepped for grocery store or farmer’s’ market presentation, and that means they’re free of the majority of the dirt and have at least been given a cursory wash. That all means that in order to keep your produce at its freshest for the longest amount of time, you should wait until right before you’re going to use it to wash it. If you absolutely can’t bear to put away dirty produce, dry it thoroughly before putting it away — but remember that you can only get produce so dry.

Washing pre-washed salads and lettuce

Bagged salads are great, especially if you need something quick and healthy to grab out the door for your lunch as you’re scrambling to fit your morning routine into what’s never enough time. Most pre-made salads are labeled that they’re triple-washed or ready to eat, but no one’s going to blame you if you say you’re still reserving a certain amount of suspicion as to just how clean these pre-made salads are, especially in light of the occasional news story about some pretty horrible things being found in them.

But, this is one time you can skip washing your produce. According to the FDA, re-washing isn’t only just not necessary, but you might be exposing your food to more potential contaminants by trying to re-wash these ready-to-eat products.

Foods that are labeled as ready-to-eat are produced in a way that usually involves being washed by commercial-grade equipment, and they’re prepared and packaged in facilities that are regulated by authorities who have been approved to make sure they’re safe and sanitary. Studies done specifically to find out whether or not re-washing was really necessary have concluded that not only is it not necessary, but that consumers have a high potential to expose the product to cross-contamination from handling or exposure to bacteria on surfaces like sinks.

Your best bet is the simplest one, and that’s just to dump the salad into your bowl without even touching it.

Why you need to wash organic produce

Organic produce has a reputation of being safer and healthier for you, but if you’re familiar with the regulations that govern organic produce and the methods used to grow it, you know that pesticides can still be used on these trendy pieces of fruit and veggies. If that’s not enough of a reason to wash your organic produce, there are a few more.

According to the Environmental Working Group (via Mother Jones), organic produce can still be contaminated, thanks to something called pesticide drift. That happens when standard crops are being grown nearby, and the elements transfer chemicals into the organic fields. And even though it’s not supposed to happen, it still technically could. Organic produce can also be exposed to bacteria that can very possibly make you sick, and in that respect, it’s no better or worse than traditionally grown produce. Organic produce is still exposed to the elements, to the soil, and potential contaminants in the shipping and handling phrase of its life, so you still should wash it, no matter how much better for you it might seem to be.

What’s the deal with produce washes?

It’s possible you’ve seen an odd sort of product on the shelves at your local grocery store, and that’s something that calls itself a fruit and vegetable wash. There are a number of these products available, and if you’re asking whether or not they do better than regular or distilled water, you’re not the only one with these questions.

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine took a look at just how well some of these products did at what they claimed to do, and whether or not they were better at getting rid of the bacteria linked to causing illness.

They found that while the produce washes did what they advertised, they had just as much success getting rid of bacteria and microbes as distilled water did. Soaking produce for only a minute or two had the same effect whether it was done in distilled water or in washes, and when it came to the ozone produce washes, they didn’t even work as well as the water bath. Save yourself some cash, and give the produce washes a pass!

Home-grown wash solutions

If you’re still doubtful that just plain tap water or distilled water is going to be tough enough to get all those germs and bacteria off your fresh produce, there are a couple other things you might want to try… but, just be aware that most studies done on the use of homemade vegetable and fruit washes have shown that they’re not all that much more effective.

For your tough-to-wash leafy greens and for produce that has a ton of cracks and crevices (like broccoli or cauliflower), you might want to consider using a vinegar solution. The ratio is half a cup of distilled white vinegar, cider vinegar, rice vinegar or lemon juice to two cups of water. Produce can be sprayed with the solution or dipped into it, but you should also know that even rinsing thoroughly after doing so might not get rid of all the taste of the vinegar, and it might slightly change the texture of your produce, too. While vinegar has been found to be particularly effective against salmonella, another commonly used kitchen disinfectant, baking soda, isn’t going to get your produce any cleaner than just plain old water.

Getting those leafy greens clean

Now, let’s talk about some specifics when it comes to some of the most challenging types of produce to wash: the leafy greens. The difficulty comes in the fact that dirt and grit can collect in all the crevices and creases of the leaves, and if you can see those granules, what does that mean for bacteria?

To get these completely clean, break apart the leaves and submerge them in a basin of water. Swish them around a bit to help dislodge the grit, then let them sit for a few minutes so the dirt settles to the bottom. Take the leaves out, but don’t pick up the basin or you’ll disturb the sediment. If there’s a ton of dirt that comes off the greens, repeat the process with a clean bowl of water until you’re seeing little to no grit coming out. Dry them with a salad spinner if they’re going to be headed into something you’re going to eat raw, or feel free to cook them when they’re still a little damp.

Washing delicate fruits like berries

When it comes to things like berries, you might be tempted to soak them, too. But there’s a better way, and that’s just putting them in a colander and rinsing them under running water. You probably know how easy berries are to damage, and this is a simple method that’s not only going to keep them clean, but it’s going to keep them from turning to mush.

There are few kitchen disasters more heartbreaking than looking forward to a bowl of freshly picked strawberries or raspberries, only to have them fall apart when you’re washing them. Room-temperature berries can be so soft they’re tough to wash, but if you pop them in the fridge for an hour or so before you do wash them, you’ll find that they’ve firmed up just enough to be able to hold their shape better under the force of running water. You’ll end up with berries that aren’t just clean, but whole, and perfect for putting on top of cereal, that cake you’re baking, or just for eating by the handful.

Some general group guidelines

While there are a ton of different types of produce you might be bringing home and there’s not enough room to talk about them all individually, there are some general guidelines you can use to apply to pretty much anything you’re going to be washing and eating.

Pick up a produce brush. You can use it on things that have a tough outer rind like melons and mangoes, because you want to get off as much dirt and bacteria as you can before you cut off the rind or cut through it. Use the brush on produce with a more delicate skin, too, like apples and peppers, to get those squeaky clean as well. Always wash before cutting, and if there’s an outer layer to the produce (think brussel sprouts), your best bet is to remove those layers before you wash. For vegetables with a stem (like celery), you want to remove that after you’ve washed it.

For smooth produce, the general rule is to rinse, scrub for five seconds, and re-rinse. For produce with trickier bits (think asparagus, broccoli, and spinach), the general rule is to let them soak for two minutes, then rinse off the loosened particles for 15 seconds. Keep those in mind, and you’ll be going a long way to making sure your produce is in the best condition it possibly can be!