Even organic produce needs a bath, but what’s the best method? That depends.
Long before the COVID-19 crisis, it was common knowledge that produce can harbor harmful bacteria and viruses, including the germs from the hands of anyone who touched it before it reaches your shopping bag (as Chowhound Hobbert noted in a thread on Washing Fruits and Vegetables).
But does giving your grapes a quick rinse under running water really remove those germs, or do you need to do something more, like soak your produce or use one of those fancy fruit and vegetable cleaners?
According to Auburn University horticulture professors Dr. Floyd Woods and Dr. Joe Kemble for Best Food Facts, “research has shown that using just plain old water can remove 98 percent of the bacteria when it is used to rinse and soak produce. Simply washing produce will remove any bacteria or other residues on your produce.”
So rinsing, at minimum, is better than doing nothing at all, but the best approach depends on the specific produce you’re dealing with.
And while there is currently no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted through food, we understand not wanting to take any chances.
Rinsing your produce under the tap is what you should be doing at the very least for all fresh fruits and veggies, and that includes organic produce, as it can still have naturally-derived pesticides, bacteria, and other germs lingering on the surface.
Warm water will be somewhat more effective than cold, but be careful when washing delicate things like fresh raspberries, as too much heat will hasten their disintegration (ditto a forceful stream from the tap or sprayer). Many sources recommend that you wash your hands before rinsing produce, which may seem obvious, but also something that’s easy to overlook. The idea is to remove germs and bacteria, not introduce more to the mix.
Use a clean colander to rinse greens, snap peas, green beans, cherry tomatoes, and other smaller items that are hard to wrangle by hand and can stand some jostling. Agitate them with your fingertips to ensure all the dirt and invisible unpleasantness are getting rinsed away.
And dry everything thoroughly before putting it away in the fridge or on the counter in a fruit bowl, or the moisture will encourage rapid mold growth.
More delicate produce that comes in bunches (like grapes and berries) can be soaked in cool or lukewarm water for anywhere between five and 30 minutes to help the H20 get into all the crevices and loosen any dirt, bugs, and other unseen baddies. If you like, you can add a bit of white vinegar—at a 3:1 water to vinegar ratio, or up to as much as a 50/50 mix if you’re particularly suspicious—since it’s a natural antimicrobial. You’ll want to rinse your produce in clean water after soaking, especially if you do use vinegar, since it can leave a faint smell. Lemon juice also works as a vinegar replacement, or you can make a salt water solution.
In any case, if you’re soaking your produce right in your sink, you should wash the sink itself first (same principle as washing your hands before manually rinsing fruits and veggies). And as when rinsing, the last step is to dry everything completely before storing it so it doesn’t spoil within a day (we see you, fuzzy strawberries).
Scrub Your Produce: Heavy Duty
Hardy produce with thick skin, like squash, melons, carrots, and other root vegetables, should be scrubbed with a stiff brush under running water to ensure they’re clean. (The brush itself should also be cleaned after each use so it’s not just trapping and spreading bacteria. While we’re at, you also need to clean your kitchen sponge!)
For produce with a wax coating, if you want to eat the skin, you can use a bit of baking soda as a natural scrub to help remove the waxy layer. You can also briefly dunk these items in boiling water, or pour it over the produce (think apples, lemons, and cucumbers), then give them a scrub to loosen the warmed-up, softened wax and any invisible pesticides and bacteria.
Wash ’em! In fact, you should take extra care to wash fruits and veggies when you’re going to peel them or cut through the whole fruit or vegetable (including melons, citrus, and avocados), or else you can drive any surface bacteria into the cut interior of the food with the knife or peeler blade.
If you’re going to be roasting the produce in question, you might think it’s okay to skip it then because the high heat will kill any germs and microorganisms that may be present, which may be true, but there still could be grit; as sunshine842 says, nobody wants to feel like their dental work is being sandblasted. Basically, as in so many instances, “better safe than sorry” definitely applies here.
Conventional wisdom says you should never wash mushrooms, but it’s actually fine to do, and easier to get the dirt off that way than swiping at them with a damp paper towel. Just don’t let them hang out in water for a prolonged period, because they will start to soak it up. But a fully immersive brief bath won’t hurt.
If it makes you feel better and/or motivates you to thoroughly wash your produce, there’s no harm in using these veggie washes, but some studies suggest they may not be as effective as plain old water (or a water-and-vinegar or water-and-salt solution).
What you don’t want to do is use regular soap or dish detergents on your produce, as they can leave residues not meant for consumption. And do you really want to chance getting a hit of Dawn when you bite into your damson plum?
In the end, simple (clean) water and a little bit of manual agitation with clean hands or a clean brush should rid your produce of anything lurking on the surface that you wouldn’t want to eat.