There is a monster hiding in your kitchen, just waiting for the chance to destroy many of your carefully chosen summer fruits and vegetables. It’s called the refrigerator.
I’m only half-joking. Just as the refrigerator preserves most foods much longer than they’d last at room temperature, it can also ruin some.
Stone fruit, such as peaches, plums and nectarines, should be refrigerated only once they’re fully ripe.
Tomatoes should never be refrigerated.
And some fruits and vegetables, such as eggplant, can be refrigerated only briefly before they start suffering damage.
It’s all about the chill. Cold temperatures affect some foods in other ways than preserving them.
If you’ve ever bitten into a peach that looked absolutely beautiful — soft and golden —but had it turn out to be mealy and flavorless, the culprit was almost certainly chill damage. It can happen at the store and it can happen at home.
When under-ripe stone fruit is chilled below 50 degrees, the ripening process is stopped and all of those wonderful flavors and aromas never get a chance to appear.
Oddly enough, if the fruit is chilled all the way down to 36 degrees, that doesn’t happen, but it’s the rare refrigerator that can reliably hold that temperature.
So if you buy peaches, plums or nectarines that are still a little firm, just leave them at room temperature for a day or two. They'll soften right up. Then you can put them in the refrigerator.
Similarly, melons won’t ripen when they’re chilled.
Tomatoes are even more sensitive. Some of the chemicals that lead to ripe tomato flavor can deaden the flavor — in a study, tomatoes that had been chilled were found to lack “fruity-floral aromas” and sweetness and to be higher in sourness and “off-flavors” (fruit geeks, check this out).
With other fruits, the damage happens more slowly, so they can be refrigerated for a few days without worry. It may seem funny at first, but cucumbers, peppers and eggplants are actually tropical fruits. Refrigerate them for a very long and you’ll start to see pitting and soft spots develop.
The refrigerator is not your enemy, but especially with summer fruits and vegetables, it is something you need to be wary of.
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