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Whew! What's that smell in the refrigerator?

May 23, 2002

One day I opened the refrigerator only to be hit in the face by a strong pungent odor.

"Whew, what is that smell?" I remarked to my wife, Debbie. She immediately got on the defense by saying she had just cleaned out the refrigerator last week. Then I found the potent item causing the bad stench. It was a bag of broccoli that I had placed next to a cantaloupe. Immediately I knew that it was my fault for allowing ethylene gas (a ripening agent) coming from the melon to fume onto broccoli.

"Sorry, honey" was all I could meekly offer as I took the smelly, yellow broccoli heads out of the refrigerator. I scoured around to find out what else I had contaminated. Sure enough, there was a head of lettuce that had brown rusty spots all over the outside. It was another victim of ethylene.

Ethylene promotes the ripening and softening of bananas, apples, melons, tree fruits including pears, peaches and apricots. However, ethylene exposure produces a devastating effect on many vegetables, especially leafy ones.

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Ethylene will cause the following effects on your vegetables. Leaf yellowing and leaf abscission are common symptoms in cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Carrots will get a bitter flavor in storage. Okra, spinach, green summer squash and cucumbers will turn yellow. Exposure of green beans to ethylene causes loss of green pigment and increased browning. The flavor and color of cooked sweet potato roots are adversely affected by ethylene. Watermelon will lose firmness and eating quality with ethylene exposure.

So how can a consumer overcome the affects of ethylene? First keep fruits in one drawer in the refrigerator and keep vegetables in another. Store each group in perforated plastic bags. You can purchase these or make your own. About 20 pencil-sized holes per bag are enough.

So why punch holes in plastic bags? If fruit or vegetables are stored in non-vented bags, there will be an accumulation of carbon dioxide and a depletion of oxygen. This will lead to off-odors and to decay of the contents. Vented plastic containers may work as well as vented bags.

>>More storage tips

Ripen avocados, kiwifruit, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums on the kitchen counter and then refrigerate them. This will ensure proper softness and flavor.

Store the following items in the refrigerator: artichokes, asparagus, green beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, green onions, herbs (except basil), leafy greens, lettuce, mushrooms, peas, radish, sprouts, summer squash and sweet corn.

Cucumbers, eggplant and peppers can be refrigerated for one to three days and then must be used immediately after removal from the refrigerator.

Store the following only at room temperature: apples, citrus, mangos, cantaloupes, papayas, persimmons, pineapple, watermelon, basil (in water), cucumbers, eggplant (longer storage), garlic, potatoes, pumpkin, winter squashes, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

When storing items on the counter, place them in a bowl covered with plastic film wrap. Poke a few holes in it to allow gas exchange. This will help prevent shriveling associated with moisture loss.

Vine-ripe tomatoes will lose their flavor immediately when refrigerated at temperatures of 55 degrees or below. Unfortunately, most tomatoes in the market have already been refrigerated before you buy them so the flavor is already gone.

>> Keith Mayberry is the vegetable crops specialist at the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

>> The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

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