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Best Chemical-Free Ways to Clean Produce

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A guest blog by Andrea Lewis.

There are multiple products on the market today promising to make produce safe from pesticides, bacteria and even spoilage. Most such products are overpriced, overhyped and contain chemicals that may be harmful. The truth is, you probably already have everything you need to effectively clean all types of produce in your kitchen. From stemmed vegetables, roots and berries to leafy greens, I will tell you how to get all of your produce thoroughly clean and ready for consumption for only pennies a pound.

Before You Begin

✔ Wash the counter top and cutting board you will be using with hot, soapy water

✔ Wash your hands. You don't want to spread germs and bacteria to the food your trying to remove those things from

Cleaning Supplies Needed:

  • 1 part white wine vinegar and 3 parts water. The acetic acid in the vinegar is known to kill both bacteria and viruses
  • Plain ole tap, distilled or filtered water
  • A vegetable brush
  • Colander
  • Bowl large enough to seat colander

Warning: Never use soap (including the liquid Castile variety) directly on produce, unless it has a rind, as it will leave an unpalatable film. Also, do not wash produce until you're ready to eat it or store it in the freezer. Produce does not need to be cleaned before refrigerating, and doing so will only hasten rot and increase the likelihood of bacterial growth.

Produce Types and Methods:

Stemmed Fruits (Examples: apples, pears, bell peppers) – Dirt, debris and bacteria are usual trapped at the stem in tree fruits. That area should be rinsed first. If you intend to eat the skin (and this I highly recommend) you will definitely want to use a vegetable brush to scrub the entire fruit clean, concentrating on the stem region, before removing the stem itself. If the fruit is coated with wax, the vinegar water will make it easier to remove. You can either dip the vegetable brush in the vinegar water or pour the solution into a spray bottle, spritz the fruit and scrub. Rinse before cutting.

Rind Fruits (Examples: oranges, watermelons, avocados) – Even though the rinds of these fruits will not be eaten, it's still important to clean the rinds to prevent any dirt and bacteria on the outside from making its way within. But, because you're not going to eat the rind, you won't need the vegetable brush. A brisk stream of water and some gentle rubbing is usually enough to remove dirt from the rind; vinegar water will kill any germs and bacteria that may cling to the surface.

Root Vegetables (Examples: carrots, parsnips, potatoes) – A vegetable brush is a must for cleaning root vegetables; nothing else can sweep dirt and debris out of the crevices that cover root vegetables nearly as well. But don't get carried away. You don't want to damage roots by scrubbing too hard. I use the type of vegetable brush that has soft bristles on one end and stiff bristles on the other. Root vegetables can take either side, if your gentle, but the soft bristles are best for the heavy handed. You can use vinegar water to clean, but finish with a rinse.

Leafy Vegetables (lettuce, spinach, kale) – Always start with a 2-5 minute cool water soak, before vigorously rinsing and draining in a colander. If you're washing an entire head of lettuce, separate the leaves before soaking. If you've purchased prepackaged greens, even those claiming to be “pre-washed”, wash them again. It's better to be safe than sorry. You can use vinegar water on leafy greens as well, just finish with an extra thorough rinse.

Berries – With stemmed berries, it is always best to wash before removing stems, so that the water will not affect their taste. Never wash soft berries (like raspeberries) under running tap water, as it may crush them as well as affect their taste. It is best to place berries in a colander that's seated in a larger bowl filled with cool distilled water (vinegar water may affect the taste of soft berries). Gently swish the colander in the bowl of water, periodically lifting it to let the water drain off the berries. Change the wash water as necessary, until you are satisfied with the cleanliness of the berries.

Mushrooms – Never soak mushrooms (unless morels); they absorb water like little sponges. Use a damp paper towel to wipe away dirt and, if necessary, lightly rinse in cool water to remove stubborn dirt and insects. Morel mushrooms, on the other hand, sometimes require soaking to remove dirt and insects. However, cutting a thin slice from the bottom and then cutting in half, from stem to top, before rinsing with cool water may be enough. If it's not, soak morels in lightly salted water. Change soak water as needed, until all dirt and debris is gone. Rinse well and pat dry.

Thick Skinned Vegetables (Examples: zucchini, squash, cucumbers) – These vegetables are the easiest to clean. Simply scrubbing these vegetables down with a vegetable brush and vinegar water solution or just water, and finishing with a quick rinse, will get the job done.

Flower Vegetables (Examples: broccoli, cauliflower) – These have a lot of little crevices and usually contain a LOT of dirt and debris. They should always be soaked in cool water for at least 5 minutes and then rinsed thoroughly in a colander, before preparing.

Hot Peppers – Easy to clean, but require caution. Scrub gently with a vegetable brush under cool running water or over a bowl of distilled/filtered water. ALWAYS wear gloves before washing these types of peppers, and be careful not to touch your eyes and face.

Now, that I've described how to effectively clean a variety of fruits and vegetables, you may be wondering, 'Can simply washing fruits and vegetables remove all pesticide residue?' That's a good question. The answer is no. If there is pesticide residue lingering on the surfaces of your produce, you can definitely remove it with careful cleaning, but nothing can remove the pesticide residue that was incorporated into the produce as it grew. So, if you can afford to buy organic, you definitely should. But organic produce needs to be thoroughly cleaned as well. Bacteria and dirt on the outside can easily make its way inside produce while its being cut or peeled; so, it's not just pesticide residue that we must guard against.

If you cannot afford to purchase all organic produce, select those items that are known to be highly contaminated with pesticide residue. Non-organic berries and leafy greens are good examples of foods that are more likely to be contaminated with pesticide residue. Oddly enough, mushrooms are a safe non-organic choice, because they are rarely treated with pesticides by growers. In an article entitled, How To Eat Raw on A Budget, I've listed the raw foods most and least likely to be contaminated with pesticides. They're not complete lists, by any means, but they're a good start.

As for those products claiming to make any and all produce safe for consumption, they are selling a fallacy. Those products do not work any better than diluted white wine vinegar, a vegetable brush and a little elbow grease. The FDA has actually advised against these commercial produce washes because the safety of their residues have not been evaluated and effectiveness has not been tested or standardized. In truth, what those companies are really selling is a placebo for fear. The more you know about what you are eating the less you have to fear. 



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