Just about any modern refrigerator has crisper drawers. These things are provided to help us keep foods organized and fresh as long as possible. Yet, many of us simply don’t give much thought about how to properly use them. It’s common to just stuff them with food that won’t fit on the shelves, still in their original plastic bags from the grocery store. Or maybe we fill them with beverage cans so they’re neatly tucked in and organized, so they’re easily reachable, and so we can see when we’re about to run out. Or maybe we stuff any fruits together in one drawer and any vegetables together in another drawer, move the slider vent to whatever setting seems right and call it done. Well, there’s more to the proper use of these amenities than that, so I decided to do some research. Here’s what I found…
Some drawers will have a high/low humidity setting. This is a simple toggle lever that you slide back and forth that opens or closes a small vent, allowing air to flow or closing it off. Sometimes the closed vent setting will have a picture of a vegetable by the word “high,” indicating high humidity by closing the air vent. That same drawer may also have a picture of a fruit by the word “low” indicating the air vent is open allowing for low humidity in the drawer (refrigerator air is normally very dry). If you have a drawer that does not have a toggle lever, then by default it’s a high-humidity drawer.
Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water, so most of the humidity in the drawers comes directly from the food within. So, when the toggle lever closes off the air vent, it’s creating a highly humid environment for the items in the drawer. When the toggle lever opens the air vent, allowing refrigerator air to flow in and out of the drawer, it creates a low-humidity environment within the drawer. Some items should be stored in the high-humidity drawer, whereas others should be stored in the low-humidity drawer. So, what goes where?
Some fruits and vegetables produce a hormone in the form of ethylene gas that is emitted as a ripening agent. These same foods often react to the gas that they produce by ripening faster. Other fruits and vegetables do not emit this gas. Some fruits and vegetables are sensitive to the gas, causing them to ripen faster than normal, while others are not. This is where the fruit ripening trick comes from where we can place an unripe fruit in a paper bag (such as a mature green tomato) with a ripe apple or banana. The gas emitted by the apple or banana will speed up the ripening process of the other fruit (ie the tomato) that’s in the bag. This works IF that fruit is sensitive or reacts to the presence of ethylene gas.
Fruits and vegetables that are sensitive to ethylene gas need to be separated from the gas-producing foods. If not, the gas causes the sensitive foods to ripen and age faster than normal. By closing off the air vent of a drawer containing ethylene-sensitive foods, you’re protecting them from such gas in the refrigerator, while at the same time maintaining a highly humid environment helping to prevent the foods from wilting or withering. Examples of such foods include asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, greens (like chard, spinach, turnip and mustard greens), lettuces, parsley, peppers, squash, and strawberries. These include vegetables and fruits that are thin-skinned or leafy and tend to lose moisture easily.
Ethylene-producing foods should be kept together and away from the foods that are sensitive to their gases. These foods should be stored in a crisper drawer with the air vent open, thereby allowing the refrigerator air to flow in and out of the drawer, creating a low-humidity environment. These foods tend to rot (such as apples) rather than wilt (such as lettuce). Some examples of these foods include: apples, apricots, avocados, ripe bananas, cantaloupes, figs, honeydew melons, kiwi, nectarines, papayas, peaches, pears, and plums.
One simple way to know which food goes in which drawer is to remember this: “stop rot/low humidity” (to prevent rot, open the vent in the drawer creating a low humidity environment) “stop wilt/high humidity” (to prevent wilting or withering, close the vent in the drawer creating a high humidity environment). If nothing else, note that the words in each pair have the same number of letters in them (both “rot” and “low” have 3 letters; both “wilt” and “high” have 4 letters). This association may help you remember which items to put together. For instance, those items that tend to wilt from lack of moisture will need to go in the high-humidity drawer, with the toggle vent closed. Those items that tend to rot will need to go in the low-humidity drawer, with the toggle vent open.
When preparing your refrigerator crisper drawers for newly purchased foods, make sure the drawers are clean and dry. It’s helpful to line the bottom of each drawer with either a couple layers of paper towels or a clean cotton kitchen towel, folded to fit the bottom of the drawer. The liner in the drawers will absorb extra moisture, keeping it from pooling on the food. This helps to keep the food dry which helps to extend the lifespan of the food. If you have fresh greens in a drawer, toss them around occasionally to prevent excess moisture from collecting on the leaves. Also according to the writers at TheKitchn.com, the drawers seem to work best if they are at least two-thirds full. That’s a good reason to keep plenty of fresh veggies around!
Another important point is to keep meats, poultry and seafood out of drawers with fresh produce. That’s a serious potential for cross-contamination. The drawer in the middle of the refrigerator (if yours has one) is often labeled as a meat drawer. If you always freeze meats and do not keep meats in the refrigerator, you could designate that drawer (which usually doesn’t have a toggle vent) as a high-humidity drawer for whatever foods you need to store there. If you do store fresh meats in the refrigerator and do not have a designated meat drawer, consider keeping meats in their original packaging and storing them in a closed container in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Use them within a few days.
Here is a list of some common foods that can be stored together and in which drawer:
The high-humidity drawer (with the toggle vent closed) should contain fruits and vegetables that are sensitive to moisture loss and ethylene gas, and tend to wilt or wither when they age.
Cabbage (and vegetables in this family such as bok choy, Chinese cabbage, etc)
Herbs (cilantro, dill, parsley, thyme)
Leafy greens (such as kale, lettuces, mustard and turnip greens, spinach, Swiss chard, watercress)
The low-humidity drawer (with the toggle vent open) should contain foods that are not sensitive to moisture loss, are ethylene gas producers, and tend to rot when they get old.
Stone fruits (such as apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums)
By storing fresh fruits and vegetables properly, we can help to extend their shelf lives to the fullest potential, thereby saving money and wasting less food.
About the Author
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.