Getting Schooled on Preserving and Storing Food With Civic Kitchen | Civil Eats

Getting Schooled on Preserving and Storing Food With Civic Kitchen

The San Francisco-based cooking school, which is geared toward home cooks, uses multiple tricks and hacks to make food last. Plus: The Civil Eats team shares our own favorite home cooking tips.

Pantry of spices in a commercial kitchen at a restaurant

A version of this article originally appeared in the “Revitalizing Home Cooking” issue of The Deep Dish, our members-only newsletter. Become a member today and get the next issue directly in your inbox.

San Francisco’s Civic Kitchen buys enough fruits and vegetables every month to completely fill 10 shopping carts. More than 250 students take classes each month at the school, which is geared toward home cooks. In the last year, inflation has driven up Civic Kitchen’s food costs by 10 to 15 percent, says co-founder and instructor Jen Nurse.

“We’re super concerned with the longevity of what we bring in and don’t want to waste it, so we have all kinds of storage techniques,” Nurse says.

For example, the cooking school, like all professional kitchens, uses the first in, first out (FIFO) system so that the oldest food in its refrigerators, freezer, and pantry are used first.

Below are more food storage and preserving tricks and hacks from Civic Kitchen and 18 Reasons, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes home cooking to increase food security.

Produce. For many types of fruits and vegetables, the key is to wash, dry, and store them in the refrigerator or pantry. After Civic Kitchen receives a produce order, for example, they fill a sink or large container with cool water and add most types of fruits and vegetables (see note below on berries) to soak before scrubbing everything—Nurse loves using Japanese tawashi brushes—and laying them out to dry completely on a wire rack or towel without touching. “If we do that and store in our pantry or fridge, it lasts a really long time and anything you reach for is already clean,” Nurse says.

Tomatoes and potatoes can be washed and dried but shouldn’t be stored in the refrigerator. Potatoes can go into a brown paper bag once dry to shield them from light, which turns them green. Onions don’t need to be washed before storage or refrigeration. If your mushrooms are very dirty, wash them (quickly, to keep them from soaking up water) right before use.

Ethylene gas is released as produce ripens and can speed up ripening in nearby produce. Onions produce a lot of ethylene, so Kayla Whitehouse at 18 Reasons recommends storing them away from potatoes. Bananas also ripen quickly and produce ethylene, so store those away from apples.

Berries. For delicate berries such as strawberries or raspberries, Nurse spreads them out, unwashed, on a paper towel-lined sheet pan in a single layer, without touching. Then she layers another paper towel on top, followed by a layer of plastic wrap. Finally she stores them in the refrigerator to be washed right before using. For sturdier berries, such as blueberries and blackberries, she’ll follow the same procedure but washes and dries them first.

Herbs. Nurse advises against washing fresh herbs directly under hard running water, which can bruise the leaves. Instead, fill a large bowl or sink with cold water and float the herbs for a while. Lift them out and use a salad spinner to dry them as much as possible. For multiple kinds of herbs, nest a dry towel between the bunches in the salad spinner to keep from getting mixed up. Gather the stems in the same direction like a flower bouquet. Store the herbs upright in the refrigerator in a container with a little bit of water covering the stems. Or wrap the stems in a paper towel folded lengthwise, keeping the leaves loose, and store in an airtight container or Ziploc bag. “You throw a few bunches of herbs in there, squeeze out the air, zip it up, and it will last for at least two weeks,” Nurse says. This technique doesn’t work with basil, which should be washed right before using—and never refrigerated.

Herb storage (Photo courtesy of Civic Kitchen)

Herb storage (Photo courtesy of Civic Kitchen)

Ginger. Civic Kitchen stores half-used ginger in the freezer with the skin on. “You just grate it or use it straight from frozen, and it’s wonderful,” Nurse says. She notes that it’s easier to grate with the skin on and recommends choosing young ginger with fresh, fine skin and washing it before using.

Animal Protein. Most raw proteins last longer in the refrigerator than people think, Nurse says. She recommends buying and cooking fish within a couple days, and within three to four days for other types of protein. Throw out food if it smells off or looks discolored. Once cooked, most proteins will last three to five days.

Freshness. Nurse noted there can be a big difference in freshness and shelf life of what is available at a farmers’ market or farm stand vs. the grocery store. “I can say absolutely without a doubt that the produce and herbs from the farmers’ market typically last at least twice as long as what you get in the grocery store,” she said. Although some things may be cheaper at a grocery store, buying from a farmers’ market or farm stand also ensures that more of your dollars are going directly into farmers’ pockets.

Storage containers. Nurse recommends using clear, airtight containers that are stackable and nest well with each other, such as square- or rectangle-shaped containers rather than round ones. Although some people steer clear of plastic due to safety concerns, Nurse doesn’t have a problem with food-grade plastic containers like Cambro. She advises placing labels in the front of containers, rather than on top, so you can quickly see what needs to be used first.

Labeled foods in Civic Kitchen's pantry (Photo courtesy of Civic Kitchen)

Labeled foods in Civic Kitchen’s pantry (Photo courtesy of Civic Kitchen)

Freezing. If you can’t cook your food or eat your leftovers in a timely manner, “your freezer is your friend,” Nurse says. Whitehouse recommends blanching vegetables before freezing them to retain texture and flavor; she also recommends buying frozen vegetables to save money on out-of-season produce. Overripe bananas can be frozen with or without their skin and used in smoothies or banana bread.

If using Ziploc bags to store food in the freezer, Nurse says it’s important to squeeze out as much air as possible because many freezers are designed to cycle through freeze and thaw periods; as they cycle up and down in temperature, food will refreeze, which can lead to freezer burn if the food is exposed to air.

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Preserving. Extra onions and other vegetables can be pickled with a quick brine, which will extend their life for a month and provide fun toppings for tacos and sandwiches. Onions can also be caramelized, which will keep for a week or be frozen. Lemons preserved in salt and sugar can add a kick to salad dressings, sauces, cocktails, and marinades. For herbs about to turn, Nurse recommends making a simple green sauce that can be added to meat, sandwiches, pasta, or dressing, or can be frozen for later use.

Avoid the danger zone. Nurse advises home cooks to beware of the danger zone, the 40° F to 140°F range in which bacteria can quickly grow. The saying goes, “Keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.” Food safety experts recommend discarding perishable food that has been held in this temperature range cumulatively for more than four hours.

Cooking Tips From the Civil Eats Team

Introduction by Lisa Held

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the Civil Eats’ team are enthusiastic home cooks. Some of us have been to culinary school, some have picked up favorite recipes from their parents, and others have found inspiration in the wide world of recipes and how-to videos now available online. Here, the team shares some of the best tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way. We’d love to hear your tips as well—send us an email!

When it comes to home cooking, we all pick up knowledge in different ways.

Part of my story involves marrying an award-winning chef. (I know, what a brag.) In almost all ways, it’s a dream. He cooks for me constantly, and for that, I am unceasingly grateful.

But for an enthusiastic home cook, it can also be complicated. I love to cook and always thought I was pretty good at it. But when we first got together, my “skills” suddenly seemed ridiculous. I was filled with anxiety chopping vegetables in his presence and terrified any time he took a bite of a dish I’d made. (To be clear, he is only ever supportive and uncritical; it’s just about my internal desire to measure up in all ways at all times.)

Over time, that fear was whittled away by love and partnership. And along the way, I got better at cooking. The best part is that the pure joy he gets from making and sharing something delicious rubbed off on me. While some people dread the question, his eyes light up when he asks (sometimes literally at 10 a.m.), “What do you want to have for dinner tonight?” But I also use more salt and pepper than I ever did before and know how to make many more simple condiments. (Try this: diced white onion, cilantro, lime juice.)

“One extra step.” If time is the only variable that matters, you can live without this. Especially because yes, there will be more dishes. But one thing I noticed is that chefs always add an extra step that happens before the main “cooking” event. I never would have bothered with it in the past, but I have realized it can really improve the outcome. For example, boiling hard vegetables like potatoes or broccoli that are going to end up sautéed, roasted, or fried. Or sweating eggplant: Cover slices or dices with plenty of salt, let it sit for 20 minutes, put it in a towel, and squeeze out the water. —Lisa Held

A final touch. I used to laugh at the idea of carefully plating or garnishing a weeknight dinner for two, but there is something so lovely about someone putting a plate in front of you that looks like it was made with care. The most simple bowl of rice and beans comes to life with a little cilantro garnish on top. —Lisa Held

Garlic oil at the ready. For years I have sautéed garlic in olive oil before using it in pesto or other sauces that don’t get cooked; it mellows out the flavor and significantly reduces my garlic-breath woes. For the last six months or so, I have been doing that “one extra step” that Lisa mentions and sautéing more garlic and oil than I immediately need, and keeping the extra in a jar on my counter. Being able to quickly add garlic oil to any dish makes it a little more magical, and it makes pesto that much quicker to whip up. —Matt Wheeland

Storage and presentation. Anything that’s getting stored in the fridge gets masking tape with an ID and a date. It takes two seconds, and I think it really does help you make sense of what’s in your fridge, which helps you come up with dinner plans more quickly and avoid food waste. —Lisa Held

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Consult internet experts. When I want to figure out how to make something come out great, I go to YouTube to find tricks. I recently learned how to make fluffy omelets and how to pop the best popcorn every time! —Kalisha Bass

4 words to cook by. Samin Nosrat’s principle of “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is really helpful for figuring out how to cook and season to taste. It’s the idea that good-tasting food strikes a balance between salty, fatty, and acidic elements, while also considering how it is cooked (heat). So if the food doesn’t quite taste right, it’s likely one of those factors needs adjusting. —Grey Moran

Look to simple, veggie-forward recipes for inspiration. We got into a rut with menu ideas to prepare for two kids and with limited time. We found ourselves making pasta, tacos, or a plate of rice and roasted vegetables over and over, ad infinitum. While we’re not ones for prescriptive diets, we’ve recently found inspiration with Mediterranean diet-inspired recipes, which prioritize vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and heart-healthy fats. The new ideas have spiced up our rotation: spinach and feta frittata! Lemony roasted shrimp and asparagus! Tuna melts! The variety has been refreshing, and the kids have been happy. We look for recipes that are simple and require as few ingredients and steps as possible. —Christina Cooke

Simple, high-quality ingredients. The one tip I share the most is really the simplest: Buy the best ingredients you can afford and let them shine. Because I don’t eat meat, I often spend more on fresh vegetables at the farmers’ market as well as high-quality olive oil—and I use a lot of it. People often seem amazed how really good olive oil can transform vegetables, not only in cooking and roasting, but also as a finishing touch and in salad dressing. Caramelized baby cauliflower, fennel, spring onions, and carrots, for example, can be transformed into a simple delicacy with a peppery olive oil and salt. —Naomi Starkman

Cook with, and for, friends. The Civil Eats team is tired of me talking about my soup swap, but it’s one of my favorite cooking improvements in the last few years. Throughout the winter, a neighbor friend and I exchange a quart of soup every week. I’ll make a slightly larger pot of soup—which takes almost no extra effort—and I get an extra meal by swapping with my neighbor. It’s like two meals for one! Plus, I get to try a bunch of recipes that I never would’ve discovered on my own. —Matt Wheeland

For kids, find recipes that can be deconstructed. With two kids, ages 3 and 5, who each have particular tastes, we look for recipes that sound tasty to my husband and me—but can be served in deconstructed form as well. That way, we can enjoy the whole dish as intended, and they can enjoy the individual components they find most appealing. We recently prepared a variation of this farro, chickpea, spring veggie, and feta salad, for example. While we ate the marinated salad all mixed together, the kids enjoyed farro, roasted chickpeas, and slices of avocado, and could avoid the radishes and lettuce, which they were less likely to eat. —Christina Cooke

Finishing touches. Ice cube trays are great for freezing small portions of extra sauce; the cubes can be stored in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. For example, you can pull out a few cubes of stock, pesto, or chile sauce for a quick addition to a dish. We also typically have fresh herbs, citrus, and good olive oil and butter on hand for finishing a dish. —Tilde Herrera

Preserving family memories. The act of passing on a family recipe can often be forgotten or put off for years. Sometimes it’s best to be the initiator and ask to learn how to make your mom’s famous chimichurri or arroz con pollo. Not only will seeking guidance on how to prepare beloved dishes allow another generation to experience the love of cooking that spans decades, but it will also honor the cooks themselves. Take this as a sign to ask that family member about their iconic dish and then be sure to pass down the knowledge in your own time. —Marisa Martinez

All interviews in this issue have been edited for length and clarity

Since 2009, the Civil Eats editorial team has published award-winning and groundbreaking news and commentary about the American food system, and worked to make complicated, underreported stories—on climate change, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, policy, health, nutrition, and the farm bill— more accessible to a mainstream audience. Read more >

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  1. curious cook
    I’m wondering about Matt’s top on making garlic-infused oil and keeping it on the counter at the ready. Sounds great - but I’ve always heard that would be a perfect environment for harmful bacteria to thrive.

    Can anyone shed light on that?

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