When Good Produce Goes Bad

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Kubocha squash showing signs of spoilage next to an unspoiled acorn squash

The garden dictates what’s for dinner during the growing season, be it asparagus in April or tomatoes in August. This time of year, natural rhythms continue to control many menus at my house, because some of my stored vegetables are earning places on the “eat me now” list. For example, some of the stored potatoes are sprouting, and suspicious spots on winter squash are suddenly gaining ground.

I’ve learned that it pays to stay on top of things, which includes checking on foods stored in the refrigerator, freezer, and cabinets. Here is a quick checklist for what to look for as you monitor the condition of your put-by garden crops…

Rotting stored apple

Sniffing Out Spoilage

As the old saying goes, one bad apple spoils the cart, because the microorganisms that cause one fruit to rot can quickly spread to its neighbors. The same thing can happen in a basket of stored potatoes or onions. But while apples can deteriorate quietly, with little aroma, rotting potatoes, onions or garlic smell terrible. Sniff them out before a small problem becomes a large one.

Sprouted potatoes

When checking your stored potatoes or onions, you may discover early signs that they have given up on dormancy and begun to sprout. How long potatoes stay dormant depends on variety as well as how they were grown and cured, and the same goes for onions. Subtle triggers – for example, heating a normally chilly basement for a few days – can cause dormant roots to wake up and start growing. Watch for that, and eat your stored potatoes and onions as soon as they start to sprout.

Winter squash with very hard rinds often keep until spring in good condition, but squash do not read storage charts. In the photo at the top of the page, a kubocha squash is showing a bad spot on the rind, while the acorn is still in fine condition. Sometimes winter squash go bad from the inside out. When stored under warm conditions, the seeds inside some pumpkins and winter squash can sprout and rot, resulting in a sloppy mess. If you hear wet sloshing sounds when you shake a pumpkin, it is ready to be composted rather than cooked.

Canned produce

Troubleshooting Canned Fruits and Vegetables

Each year I can many pints of apples, pears, tomato sauces, jams and lots of pickled vegetables, too. After the glass jars cool, I check each one to make sure the tops have sealed successfully before putting the jars in cool storage. A few fail for unknown reasons, and occasionally a jar that passed inspection on processing day either loses its seal or shows evidence of leakage in the form of discoloration or mold weeks or months after the jars are placed in storage.

Before composting the contents of compromised jars, I find others from the same batch and inspect them for problems. Then, after the bad jar has been emptied and cleaned, I inspect the rim. In my experience, chips or bulges in the rims of glass jars are the main cause of late-appearing failure of home canned foods. When you find a flawed jar, recycle it.

Checking stored carrots

Organizing Chilled and Frozen Produce

Nobody likes cleaning out the refrigerator, but negligence can lead to produce drawers clogged with shriveled carrots and pithy radishes. See-through plastic bags make it easier to tell turnips from kohlrabi, but dark-colored beets seem to have special talents for hiding themselves. If cleaning out the fridge feels too overwhelming, simply commit to taking on one shelf each day.

Likewise, your freezer can turn into a land-of-the-lost if you let things get out of hand. Jostling about to find those packets of frozen snow peas often causes little splits in brittle freezer bags, which compromises the quality of the food you worked so hard to grow and preserve. I like to keep fruits and vegetables on separate shelves, and I put small frozen packets of vegetables in little bins to keep things organized.

Back to the question of what’s for dinner. This time of year, more than any other, it is important to “shop your own store first,” because the clock is ticking on your stored vegetables. Better get cooking!

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Show Comments


"What a coincidence! Just a bit ago I had to track down an elusive smell when I passed through from the kitchen into the hallway. Yep, near the storage bins where I keep potatoes! Whoa! What a stink when I moved the potatoes around, yikes! These are store bougnt, so not quite the same. I do grow my own sweet potatoes and I check on them regularly. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with all of us! "
Bev. on Saturday 26 November 2016
"Bev, one good thing is that should sweet potatoes punk out, they simply shrivel into leathery lumps. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 10 December 2016
"my sweet potatoes didn't keep, I live in north west france. I lifted them in November. I stored them in a basket in our empty house next door. there are windows front and back but the shutters were closed on the front. the sweet potatoes were soft and when I cut into them they were stained nearly all the way through. what is the correct way to store them."
melanie on Tuesday 22 January 2019

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