Take heart. You're not alone. I did it wrong for years, storing potatoes in the refrigerator is 'no bueno'. Same for onions and garlic. This post takes a look at these nutritional power players and how to get the most from them in storage time. Nobody likes to waste food.
Like many of you, I was seduced by the idea that everything had to be refrigerated ... well, except in the wintertime. I would store onions and potatoes in the garage, which rarely went below 40 degrees. But, even there, I was doing it wrong. Sigh. Live and learn.
Potatoes are one of a plant-based eater's favorite miracles of nature. Long thought - mistakenly - to be the cause of weight gain, it turns out that they're a source of high quality nutrition and fiber. That's especially true of sweet potatoes and yams. Potatoes only become the enemy of your waistline when paired with unhealthy fats: fries and chips come to mind first. So, when thinking about food and weight gain, remember that starchy vegetables aren't the enemy - it's the 'traveling companions' like sour cream, butter, sauces and gravies made with added refined/animal fats or the fats that these starchy wonders are cooked in.
Potatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors - there's truly a potato for every taste or dish.
Elongated Russet variety potatoes (shown above) are commonly referred to a 'baking potatoes' (or Idaho potatoes, since most are grown in the Gem state) and have that rougher, darker and tasty skin. They are high-starch and low moisture, with a mealy flesh that becomes delightfully fluffy when cooked. These are the workhorse of potatoes, and can be baked, steamed, boiled, grilled, air-fried, whipped and mashed. Russets are great for soups like classic, creamy Potato Soup.
Members of the medium-starch potatoes include: Yukon Gold (aka Yellow), Fingerling, Purple, and White. Any of these are totally up for being mashed, but will hold their shape when steamed or boiled.
The medium-starch lineup will feature varieties such as French Fingerling, Russian Banana, Peruvian Purple, Adirondack Blue .... I'm sensing a theme here. The flavorful, buttery Yellow varieties will be perfect cut up into soups and chowders, and they're a favorite in the Northeast United States (think New England) for that reason.
Finally, there's the low-starch, 'waxy' potatoes such as New/Baby Potatoes and Red-Skinned Potatoes. New or Baby potatoes are harvested before fully mature and while the leaves are still green, with a season that runs from November to June. Red Potatoes are the delightfully thin-skinned variety that is so good just boiled. The potatoes in this category are perfect for cold potato salads, and are a good bet for roasting, boiling or steaming. The only thing not to do with these? Mash them. They'll turn gummy. But, we love them here simply boiled or steamed, on the dinner plate, broken/mashed with a fork, with some salsa, Romesco Sauce or vegan Brown or Chikin gravy. My husband will 'inhale' these.
Let's not forget the yellow and vividly orange beauties: Sweet potatoes and Yams.
I see a lot of labeling confusion in produce sections, and among shoppers, when it comes to telling the difference between these two types of potato.
Sweet potatoes have a more elongated, tapered/pointy end. The skin is lighter in color, and the flesh can be light yellow or dark orange in color. They're higher in Beta Carotene, and are lower in calories. Jewel and Red Garnet are popular varieties that you'll commonly see in produce aisles. You'll also see purple or tan varieties - which are less sweet and cook up much like the starchier Russet potato. Sweet potatoes actually aren't a potato at all, but belong to the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae (that means lots of pretty flowers!)
Beauregard Sweet Potato
Yams - native to Africa and Asia - have a darker, sometimes rougher skin with a lighter colored flesh, The ends can be somewhat more 'stumpy' than a Sweet Potato. Yams also have loads of fiber and potassium, and are drier and more 'starchy'.
Sweet potatoes and yams can be frozen! That's right! But, you need to cook them first. Baked sweet potatoes can be frozen whole, or can be sliced and steamed/boiled just until they're almost tender. Drain them thoroughly and put them in a plastic zip-lok (or vacuum bag, which is even better!) with the air pressed out. Frozen, they'll last a few months.
What if you've cut a sweet potato or yam in half and only used part of it? Simply wrap it up in beeswrap or plastic, and store it at room temperature for up to 3 days. Don't try this with a regular 'white' potato, however. It will discolor.
At the end of the day, yams and sweet potatoes can be mostly interchangeable. A lot of growers label their sweet potatoes as yams. As long as they're red or orange skinned, you shouldn't much care. Oh, and bigger isn't necessarily better. Medium is best.
Here's the bottom-line in regard to storing any potato: Never, ever store raw potatoes in the refrigerator. The colder temperatures in the fridge converts the starch to sugar, and alter the taste and texture. Instead, store raw spuds in a dark, cool-ish and well-ventilated area. I have hanging mesh bags in a utility room closet for this purpose.
Stored correctly, potatoes can 'keep' for months, although I don't recommend buying so many that this should be the case. The Pandemic year notwithstanding, I prefer to run food supplies in our household on the 'lean' side. Have enough, and use it over a shorter period of time. I'm not a fan of the warehouse club Scarcity Mentality model of purchasing - particularly for a small family - unless you live more than an hour from the nearest grocery store.
Finally - potatoes will often sprout 'eyes'. They're still just fine to cook and eat! Simply cut those sprouted parts out with a paring knife and plant them (to grow more potatoes) or pitch them into the compost heap. The only time to toss a potato is if it's obviously gone moldy, wrinkled, and (when cut into) has dark areas. Store them properly, don't buy more than you can use in a reasonable time, and this shouldn't be an issue.
Let's talk onions.
Luckily, I have been storing yellow 'sweet' onions in the fridge. That's the right place since they are very high moisture (having matured and been harvested in late summer). Don't buy more than you can reasonably use in a week or so, since they can get moldy.
Next, there are what I've always called 'storage onions' (although you won't see them labelled as such. They simply won't be labelled as 'sweet' onions). Those are the lower moisture onions harvested later in the fall. Stored correctly - much the same as potatoes - they can last months.
Here's the important part: Don't store your 'storage' onions next to or with potatoes. The potatoes give off moisture and gases which will cause the onions to spoil faster. I know this because I've done it. Those onions went into the compost pile. Nowadays, in my utility closet, I separate the two, and use the BluApple refill packets (tossing a couple into the mesh hanging bags with the potatoes). BTW: I toss these refill packets into many of the refrigerator produce bags and bins. Those absorb and trap the ripening gases. A foot or two between onion and potato bags, in a well ventilated closet or other area is sufficient to allow moisture from the potatoes to dissipate.
Onions can be frozen, but I don't recommend it. They can easily turn into a watery mess. Onions - once cut - are best stored in the refrigerator. I usually toss the unused half into a covered container, and it's good for a few days.
Shallots are milder than regular onions
Before we leave the land of onions, let's cover shallots. Spending a lot of time in France, I learned to love shallots. They're a milder version of onions and garlic. Store them similarly to 'sweet' onions, as they have a similar high-moisture content. Don't buy them if they're sprouted - those are old.
What about garlic?
Do you love garlic as much as we do? I hope so! We go through a lot here, and I buy the whole cloves.
Garlic loves moderate temperatures - around 60-65 degrees - and dry, well-ventilated conditions. Stored correctly, it will last for months, but really, you'll consume it long before that! I keep whole, unbroken cloves of garlic out in the mesh bags in the utility closet. They don't love the refrigerator because it's, A) too cold, and B) too humid. Garlic can be refrigerated for short periods of time, but if you're looking for long-term storage, don't use the fridge.
Here's another tip: Once you break apart a garlic bulb, store those cloves in a air-tight container, in the fridge - but not for more than about 3 days. Garlic comes naturally pre-packaged in a perfect, breathable papery skin. Left whole, in the cool, dark, dry and well-ventilated place, it will last and last and last. Sprouted garlic - like sprouted onions or potatoes - are just fine to eat. Cut out the sprout - if you wish - and use the rest.
I hope this helps you to maximize your purchase of potatoes, onions and garlic - and enables you to better enjoy these tasty and nutritious vegetables all year round.
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