Wash Greens the Right Way to Get the Most Out of Your Food Dollar
Do you wash greens like lettuce, kale and spinach by rinsing them under the kitchen tap? What if I told you there was a better way to wash greens? Learning how and when to wash green leafy vegetables can increase their shelf life, eliminate the unnecessary expense of fancy fruit and vegetable washes, and reduce your family’s exposure to both pesticide residues and germs that cause illness.
Wash Leafy Greens Right Before Use
If you wash greens before storing them in the fridge, you may think you’re getting rid of pesticides and bacteria promptly, thus keeping your family healthy. But did you know you shouldn’t wash lettuce or other green leafy vegetables before you store it?
Green leafy vegetables, like all other fresh produce will last longer if you store them whole and unwashed until you are ready to use them. If you cut or wash greens before you store them, you will shorten their shelf life.
If necessary, dry lettuce, kale, and other greens before you put them in the fridge. Never put away damp vegetables, as they will spoil faster. For more information on how to store fresh greens in the fridge, refer to my post on that subject. It provides great tips for keeping greens fresh for up to two weeks – and sometimes more!
Don’t Use Cleaning Solutions to Wash Greens
Some popular washing methods can actually increase your family’s exposure to pesticides and other unwanted chemicals. Skip the commercial vegetable washes and homemade solutions. Plain water is just as effective at removing pesticide residues. If you’re particularly concerned about germs, a solution of salt or white vinegar in water will do well.
For a while in the 80s, I used dish soap to clean fresh produce because I’d read somewhere that it would remove the pesticides. Don’t do this! You should also avoid using bleach or other household products that aren’t intended for foods.
Some of these products leave their own residues on food, and can make you sick. They tend to get trapped in pores and between the leaves, which makes it hard to properly rinse them off your vegetables. One source even claims dish soap can pull surface pesticide residue deeper into your food. It’s just not worth the risk.
If you are growing or buying local produce, the best thing is to only bring home as much as you need for a day or two. Shake off any surface soil, but otherwise leave the vegetables intact until you’re ready to use them.
Before you wash greens like lettuce or cabbage, discard the first few outer leaves. This has a bigger impact on reducing pesticide exposure than any cleaning product you can use. Then be sure to wash and dry the individual leaves of the vegetables thoroughly. Throw these leaves away, especially if you are concerned about chemical residues in commercially grown lettuce and kale.
Don’t Wash Greens Under Running Water
A good scrub under running water is the best way to remove pesticide residues and dirt from many vegetables. But when it comes to leafy vegetables, not so! Soil and grit get in between the leaves, as can germs and other nasty stuff. This is especially true if you are growing greens in your vegetable garden or buying vegetables from a local farmer who uses minimal processing before selling produce.
The traditional way to wash greens is in a bowl or sink of cool water. Not in a colander or under a running tap. The colander or salad spinner can trap grit next to the leaves. It’s best to only use them after the greens are thoroughly washed.
Scientists have found that water removes pesticide residues and germs from our food mainly due to friction. This is why scrubbing with a vegetable brush under running water is so effective with other fruits and vegetables.
But it’s really hard to scrub the delicate leaves of baby spinach, and running water can actually rip holes in some types of lettuce. Instead, wash greens in a bowl of water.
Important Steps in Washing Greens
- Separate the leaves from the head. Wash just a few leaves at a time, agitating them in the water. This supplies some of the friction that’s needed to remove both grit and pesticides or germs from your greens.
- Now let the greens sit a moment so the particles you washed off will fall to the bottom of the basin. Scoop the leaves out – do not dump them into a colander or otherwise pour them out with the washing water! This will just get all the grit back on them.
- Once you’ve lifted the leaves out of the basin, change the wash water and wash the greens again. Keep washing and changing the water until the water is fairly clear, and you stop seeing grit in the basin after removing the greens. Researchers have found that washing greens like lettuce in clean standing water three times is enough to remove up to 76.6% of pesticide residues. These results are actually superior to washing under running water.
What About E. Coli?
There have been two E. coli outbreaks linked to lettuce already in 2018, and as I edit this post it’s only late April. With much of the lettuce in Canada coming from the US during the colder months, the American lettuce recall is on the minds of Canadians too. But just yesterday, I saw Romaine lettuce from the US advertised in our local grocery store flyer.
What to do?
Health Canada hasn’t followed suit with the CDC in advising consumers to stop eating all Romaine lettuce until the outbreak is resolved. So American-grown lettuce is still available in Canadian grocery stores at the moment. Since most times we don’t know what state produce comes from, it makes sense to wonder what happens if we unknowingly buy lettuce that was grown in Yuma, Arizona.
So in the case of a potential contamination, is there a way to wash greens so we can remove the risk of E. coli infection? It turns out the answer isn’t simple.
Can You Wash Greens Enough to Kill E. Coli?
Washing greens with moderate friction can eliminate a lot of pathogenic bacteria. In laboratory tests, washing lettuce under running water for 2 minutes actually outperformed several other methods you could use to wash greens. It got rid of more coliform bacteria than using salt, vinegar, and even some solutions of chlorine and potassium permanganate.
Soaking greens in water for two minutes also performed well. Though it didn’t remove as much bacteria as the running water method, it matched or outperformed salt, vinegar, combined salt and vinegar, and even the potassium permanganate. So plain tap water is quite effective at getting rid of bacteria like E. coli.
The problem is that E. coli 057 is highly infectious. It only takes a tiny amount of the bacteria to make you sick. So removing most of the bacteria is probably sufficient with other pathogens. But with this particular strain of E. coli – the one most common in North America – it just might not be enough to keep your family safe.
If nobody in your house is at higher risk for complications of E coli infection, that might be enough for you. But the risk is higher for the elderly, children under 5, pregnant women, and anyone whose immune system is compromised. So if anyone in your household is at risk for the more serious complications of Shiga toxin-producing E coli (STEC, like E coli 0157) you probably don’t want to take the risk.
Drying and Prepping Your Greens
Lay the greens out in a single layer on a clean towel. Loosely roll the towel up, being careful not to crush them. If the leaves are still pretty wet when you unroll the towel, you can repeat with a second dry towel.
If you prefer, you can use a salad spinner at this point. And it’s fine to let the lettuce leaves drip briefly in a colander after they’ve been well cleaned. But do dry them promptly, as moisture invites the growth of germs that cause spoilage
and foodborne illness.
I tend not to trim my greens until after they’re washed, because we save the stems and cores for making homemade soup stock. Just toss everything into a freezer bag when you do any vegetable prep, and leave it in the freezer until you’re ready to make broth. I save all my vegetable skins, peels and ends this way. It reduces kitchen waste, and it’s also a frugal way to cook up a batch of homemade stock.
To see a demonstration of the technique for how to wash greens, check out this video:
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Original content © 2014-2018 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
This article first appeared in August 2014 on the now defunct site Bubblews
This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!