How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables to Reduce Risk of Illness and Pesticides
Fruits and vegetables bring lots of great things to the table: fresh flavors, vivid colors, and needed nutrients. Make sure you leave any contaminants behind by washing them well before using.
Eating a diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, is a key to good health. Fruits and veggies are loaded with good-for-you vitamins and minerals. However, to stay healthy, it's crucial to make sure the produce you consume is as safe to eat as possible. One way to do that is to make sure any fruits or vegetables you use have been washed well before you peel, cut, eat, or cook with them. There's nothing difficult about how to wash fruit or veggies. And it's good for you. So there's no excuse to skip it. If you think about how many people handled that apple to get it from the orchard through delivery and to your store, then how many grocery store customers picked it up and set it back down (or coughed while walking by, ew!), you'll have even more motivation to always properly wash fruits and vegetables.
How Fruits and Vegetables Become Contaminated
Although most consumers understand that meat needs to be properly handled to prevent food-borne illnesses, some do not realize that fruits and vegetables may also cause illness if not handled and stored properly. In fact, in recent years, contaminated fruits and vegetables have been the culprit in several large outbreaks of food-borne illness (an issue the FDA is working to resolve). Some of the ways that fruits and vegetables can become contaminated include:
- Harmful substances present in the soil or water during the growing phase
- Poor hygiene among workers during harvest, packing, and transporting
How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables
It's incredibly simple (and no, there's no magic length of time for how long to wash vegetables or fruit), but it's also simple to overlook just one element of the rinsing process that could result in eating unsafe produce.
- Start by bringing home good produce. Choose produce free of bruises, mold, or other signs of damage. If you are purchasing precut items, make sure they have been refrigerated or displayed on ice at the supermarket (and that they're not past their best-by date).
- Store perishable fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator (unless it's one of the items best at room temperature), at 40°F or below, until you're ready to use them. Always store precut fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, too.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after handling fresh produce.
- Wash the produce before you peel it. That way, contaminants will not be transferred from your knife to the fruit or vegetable.
- Hold the fruit or vegetable under cool running tap water, gently rubbing it as you rinse it. There is no need for soap. (Mushrooms are an exception, learn about them here.)
- Use a sharp paring knife to cut away any damaged or bruised areas.
- For firm produce, such as melons and winter squash, you may prefer to use a clean vegetable brush to scrub the surface as you rinse it.
- Produce with bumpy, uneven surfaces, such as cauliflower and broccoli, should be soaked 1 to 2 minutes in cold water (with outer leaves already removed) to remove contaminants from the nooks and crannies. Then rinsed again.
- Use a clean cloth or paper towel to dry the produce before using it.
How to Wash Salad Greens
Salad greens require special attention. First, discard the wilted outer leaves; then prep and wash greens as directed for each type.
- For leafy lettuces, such as green or red-tip leaf, butterhead, and romaine as well as endive, remove and discard the root end. Separate leaves and hold them under cold running water to remove any dirt.
- For smaller greens, such as spinach and arugula, swirl them in a bowl or a clean sink filled with cold water about 30 seconds. Remove the leaves and shake gently to let dirt and other debris fall into the water. Repeat the process if necessary. Drain in a colander.
- For iceberg lettuce, remove the core by hitting the stem end on the countertop; twist and lift out the core. (Do not use a knife to cut out the core, as this can cause the lettuce to brown). Hold the head, core side up under cold running water, pulling leaves apart slightly. Invert the head and drain thoroughly. Repeat if necessary.
- For mesclun (a mixture of young, small salad greens often available in bulk at farmers markets), rinse in a colander or the basket of a salad spinner.
Other Tips for Washing Fruits and Vegetables
In an effort to promote safety and health, it can be tempting to go even further when cleaning produce, but remember these pointers:
- Do not use soap or detergents when washing produce.
- You need not seek out a special produce wash to clean fruits and vegetables. Cool, clean, running tap water is fine.
- Wash all produce before using, even if you are going to peel it. Any dirt and bacteria on the outside of unwashed produce can be transferred from the knife into the fruit or vegetable.
Test Kitchen Tip: Even organic fruits and vegetables, as well as produce from your own garden or local farmer's markets, should be washed well.
The Baking Soda Fruit Wash
A study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found a combination of baking soda and water was more effective at removing pesticides from apple skins than water alone. Though our Test Kitchen didn't see any harm in trying the fruit wash by soaking apples 2 to 12 minutes in a solution of 1 tsp. baking soda and 2 cups water, then rinsing again, we lack the tools to measure remaining pesticides.