If you're like most people, you treat the crisper drawers in your refrigerator like the culinary equivalent of the sock drawer—you just cram your produce in like it's laundry day and call it good. And then, three days later when your lettuce has become a bag of green liquid, you wonder if you're really doing it right.
And the answer is, no.
We'll discuss the right way to use your crisper drawers to keep your fruits and vegetables fresh for as long as possible.
How Does a Refrigerator Work?
A refrigerator chills warm air by blowing it across refrigerant-filled copper coils. After absorbing that heat, the refrigerant is pumped toward the bottom of the refrigerator, where that heat escapes through radiator pipes. Air conditioners work the same way, except instead of the inside of your fridge, they cool an entire room.
And just like air conditioners, refrigerators also remove moisture from the air. This happens as the air is blown across those cold copper coils. Moisture condenses on those coils, just like a cold glass on a hot day. This condensation drips onto a pan outside the fridge where it evaporates.
This is why we wrap foods tightly or store them in airtight containers—the refrigeration cycle naturally extracts moisture from inside the fridge, including from the food in the fridge, and moves it out of the fridge. So your food dries out the longer you refrigerate it. That includes fresh fruits and vegetables, which naturally emit moisture through their skins, peels or whatever.
But when it's operating normally, with the door closed, the inside of the refrigerator is a remarkably dry environment.
What Are the Crisper Drawers?
Some foods don't do so well in a dry environment, which is the natural state of the main part of the refrigerator.
And that is where the crisper drawers come in. The crisper drawers are designed to create a humid enclosure inside the otherwise dry environment of the fridge. It works by sealing off the drawers from the rest of the fridge. But empty drawers are not humid. The humidity in the crisper comes from the food you store in the drawers.
Since vegetables naturally emit moisture, the job of the crisper is to capture and hold that moisture. Examples are leafy vegetables like lettuce, fresh spinach and kale. But really, this is true of most vegetables: carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, cauliflower, summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, peas, green beans and fresh peppers also crave a humid environment.
How to Best Use the Crisper Drawers
Crisper drawers are simple devices that use a dial or a slider to control the ventilation of each drawer. An open vent means more air flow, which means the humidity produced by the vegetables inside is able to escape, making the drawer less humid. A closed vent produces more humidity.
And since many fridges have two crisper drawers, it might be natural to assume that you want one drawer to be on the humid setting and the other one less humid. But this isn't necessarily the case. Because remember, the rest of the fridge is already dry. So the kinds of produce, mostly fruit, that crave a drier environment to stay fresh can actually be stored in the main part of the fridge, thus freeing up your second crisper drawer for more veggies.
Vegetables do best in crisper drawers, including green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and all lettuces.
How to Store Vegetables in Crisper Drawers
Imagine that your produce is a living, breathing thing, and as it breathes, it exhales moisture. If you trap that moisture within the confines of the crisper drawer, you create humidity. But if you keep your produce in the plastic bags from the grocery store, the moisture that it exhales is trapped right up against the surface of the produce item, creating wetness. And wetness causes rot. You don't want that.
So get rid of those bags when you get your produce home. It might seem peculiar to store your carrots loose in the crisper drawer, along with other unwrapped items like broccoli and eggplant. But that's the right way to do it. Note too that items like cauliflower that come wrapped in plastic at the store should be unwrapped before storing them in the crisper.
If you're doing it right, you might be able to look down and see actual droplets on the inner ceiling of the drawer (assuming your fridge shelves are transparent).
How to Store Fruit in the Refrigerator
A factor to consider when using your crisper drawers is ethylene gas, and if the produce creates ethylene gas, it should not be stored in the crisper drawers. If you've ever heard that you can speed the ripening of a banana by storing it next to an apple, it's true. Apples (along with, the majority of all the other fruits) produce ethylene gas which accelerates the ripening and eventual spoilage of certain fruits and vegetables.
When refrigerating fruits like apricots, plums, cantaloupe, honeydew, kiwi, peaches, pears and nectarines, apples, apricots and peaches, store them either in the main part of the fridge, or in a separate crisper drawer of their own set to low-humidity, away from vegetables which could spoil more quickly if mixed with fruit.