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5 Produce Washing Tips I Learned in Culinary School

May 20, 2024

While washing produce feels pretty self-explanatory, possibly even too elementary for culinary school, it is part of the curriculum — and for good reason. With thousands of different types of fruits and vegetables, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to follow for produce washing. And, even though fresh fruit and vegetables are considered a lower health risk compared to animal products, they still pose safety concerns because they can be contaminated with harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. When properly cleaning produce, you’re not only removing any dirt but also eliminating any pathogens. 

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You asked: What is the best way to wash fresh produce?

Needless to say, thoroughly washing produce is an essential part of cooking, especially when you’re serving it uncooked. Here are the 5 basics, with further information below.

  • Apply vinegar
  • Wash some items after cutting
  • Submerge greens
  • Wipe mushrooms
  • Wash rinds and skins

1. Apply vinegar to kill bacteria

Rinsing with water is an effective way to wash away pesticides or chemical residue on non-organic produce. There’s just one problem: It doesn’t kill bacteria. That’s why it’s a good idea to use vinegar as well for produce you plan to serve raw, says Richard LaMarita, chef-instructor in the plant-based culinary arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. 

LaMarita says soaking produce with a simple vinegar wash made of one part vinegar and three parts water for about two minutes should kill 98% of any bacteria. A water-vinegar bath works well for sturdy fruits and vegetables (such as carrots, radishes, bell peppers, apples, pears), but not for more delicate and porous foods (like mushrooms, fava beans, or peas). 

If you plan to cook the produce, you can skip the vinegar wash, since heat should kill most, if not all, harmful bacteria.

2. Wash certain vegetables after cutting

Under most circumstances, the first thing to do when prepping vegetables is wash them. But there are a few exceptions. For example, leeks tend to collect dirt in between the inner layers. Prior to cooking, slice leeks lengthwise to expose all of the layers, then rinse or soak to remove any grit or sand. In addition, vegetables that have a connective base, such as celery, fennel, bok choy, and lettuce, can store a lot of dirt that’s nearly impossible to clean out without cutting into them first. 

3. Submerge greens in cold water

To clean herbs and leafy greens, your best bet is to use a water bath, since dirt can get lodged in their grooves and folds. Add the greens to a bowl of cold water and agitate them with your hands, moving them back and forth in the water to release any dirt or grit. After they’ve sat for a minute or two, dirt will settle on the bottom of the bowl. Lift the herbs or leaves out of the bowl, then discard the dirty water. Do this two or three times with fresh bowls of water until the water remains clear. Afterwards, pat them dry in a clean kitchen towel. For larger quantities of herbs or greens, use a salad spinner instead of a bowl. 

4. Wipe mushrooms clean

Mushrooms are at the center of a controversial question: to clean with or without water? In culinary school and most professional kitchens, cleaning mushrooms with water is an absolute no-no. Since mushrooms are porous, they soak up water like a sponge. Once the mushrooms have absorbed the water, it’s much harder to caramelize them in a skillet, as they tend to steam instead. To clean mushrooms and still get them golden afterwards, use a damp towel or special brush to wipe away any dirt. 

5. Always wash rinds and skins

Regardless of whether you plan to eat the outer rind or skin, clean the exterior with a water-vinegar spray or soak. While we don’t typically eat the thick skins and outer layers of many fruits and vegetables, such as citrus fruits, winter squashes, avocados, kiwi, onions, garlic, or pineapple, we can still be exposed to anything on those outsides. 

“If produce has a thick outer skin, it’s a good idea to still wash, because bacteria or dirt can transfer from your hands to the interior fruit that we eat. This is a way to play it safe,” LaMarita advises. “Bacteria will not seep through the skin of the vegetable or fruit, but can it enter through what is called cross contamination.”

Read next: 6 Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products for a Naturally Clean Home

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