Mistakes everyone makes when prepping vegetables

If you belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) or love to pick up fresh produce at the farmers market or at the grocery each week, you're probably getting pretty good at whipping up some great vegetable-centric meals. Properly prepping your produce will help you avoid waste and maximize freshness and flavor. These tips will enhance your cooking experience and make you a master prep.

Washing produce way ahead of time

If you can, resist the temptation to wash your greens as soon as you get them home from the market. It might seem like a good idea in the interest of saving time, but rinsing in advance can create an environment ripe for bacteria to flourish. Instead wash greens right before you're ready to prepare them. If you really are pushed for time (maybe you like to bring a salad for lunch each day) you can wash leafy greens ahead of time if you drain and dry them well. Once the leaves are sufficiently dried, store them in a partially opened plastic bag and tuck a paper towel inside to absorb any excess moisture. Washing whole vegetables and fruits before you're ready to use them can also accelerate spoilage, so save that step for when you're ready to use them. And in case you were wondering, don't bother buying special vegetable washing solutions; water is just as effective.

Cutting up vegetables too early

There are plenty of veggies you can cut up a day or two ahead of time but some really shouldn't be touched until it's time to put them to use. Cutting firm, somewhat hard vegetables like butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, or broccoli into large pieces will only slightly affect their quality. Drape a damp paper towel over cut vegetables to keep them moist if they're going to sit while you work on other cooking tasks. If you plan to store cut vegetables in the refrigerator overnight, keep them in a breathable container along with a damp paper towel. When you slice or chop vegetables, more surface area is exposed to air and the produce will deteriorate faster than if it had been left whole or cut into large pieces. Do this prep work closer to the time you plan to use the vegetable to prevent drying, browning, and moisture loss.

Avoid pre-cutting eggplant and tomatoes in advance. Sliced or cubed, exposed eggplant flesh will quickly brown. Lemon juice or salt can prohibit the browning, but this one is generally better left whole until it's time to work with it. Tomatoes are very juicy. Those flavorful juices can seep out once these two vegetables are cut, so do it closer to the time they'll be used.

Buying vegetables too soon

Pay attention to veggie shelf life. Yes, it feels great to head to the grocery store on Saturday morning with a long list of everything you need for the week, but some of those fresh items won't make it to Day 7. Artichokes, asparagus, avocado, mushrooms, corn, and broccoli will begin to spoil within 1 to 2 days. Peppers, leeks, tomatoes, and kale are generally hearty enough to last through the week. And most squash, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and onions will hold up even longer. Plan ahead and use those perishable veggies soon after you bring them home. You might need to make a second short trip to the store in the middle of the week, but if you plan properly, that's all it'll be.

Exposing veggie innards to air

Some vegetables start browning almost as soon as they're cut into and the flesh is exposed to air. This oxidation can be stopped by either cooking the vegetable or treating it until you're ready to keep the flesh from reacting to the air. Parsnips, one of the current "it" root veggies, will turn brown after it's peeled or cut. Dip this vegetable into a solution of lemon or lime juice and water to slow the browning. Use this same approach for taro root, artichokes, and celery root, too. White potatoes turn black after they've been cut and sweet potatoes become a grey-black, but submerging either potato variety in cold water will keep it from turning. Run lemon juice on snipped artichoke leaves or place the entire flower into lemon water after it's been cut. You'll also want to add fresh citrus juice to avocado to keep that beautifully vibrant green color — otherwise it starts browning soon after the flesh is scooped from the peel.

Getting rid of nutritional stuff

Many recipes call for peeled vegetables, but that's often where the best nutritional benefits lie. Cucumber peel is a great source of fiber. Potato peels also have fiber and are packed with copper and iron minerals. Purple eggplant contains nasunin, a beneficial antioxidant. Healthful nutrients that lurk just beneath carrot skin are usually scraped away. Consider scrubbing carrots with a vegetable brush to clean them rather than carving away the good stuff.

Washing incorrectly

If you're the type that puts greens in a colander and then runs water over them, it's you probably aren't getting all the grit out. Here's what you should do: submerge leaves in a large bowl filled with cold water and gently agitate the greens to loosen any trapped dirt. What you do next is most important — lift the leaves up from the water rather than pouring out the water. Do this to prevent the dirt from passing back through the cleaned leaves. Scrub potatoes, carrots, beets, and other root vegetables using a vegetable brush. And for leeks use this method to get the dirt that can hide between each layer of its compact leaves.

Peeling inefficiently

You can waste a ton of time if you don't know how how to peel some of the more difficult vegetables. Ginger has a knobby surface, making it hard to maneuver around using a paring knife or peeler. A regular old spoon makes the job simple and fast: just scrape the peel off using the spoon's edge. Garlic's papery skin and sticky surface is no fun to contend with, but you can use any number of tricks to peel garlic, including smashing the clove with the flat of a chef's knife blade to separate the skin. Winter squash like butternut and acorn are really tough to peel, but if you microwave the whole squash or simmer it for a few minutes in a pot of water, the peel softens and is much easier to remove. Your peeler goes has a double blade that can cut when you stroke up as well as when you stroke downward. Try this out with carrots, parsnips, and potatoes to shave valuable time off your prep work.

Wasting parts that can still be used for cooking

The woody asparagus stems are really fibrous and can really throw off the results for a simple side dish of grilled or sauteed spears. But those chewy ends are still full of asparagus-y flavor and will add delicious depth to a vegetable stock. Or they can be used in an asparagus soup that you'll puree and strain. Same goes for the dark green ends of leeks. They impart onion flavor and will do well in stocks. They can also serve as a protective bed for grilling over the coals. The next time you're making broth with an onion, trim off the root end (which sometimes has dirt in it) and then toss the onion, peel and all, into the pot. The skins add a rich, golden color. Many varieties of mushrooms have stems that taste just as good as the cap. Finely chop them and saute as you would sliced mushrooms. You can saute radish greens, add fennel fronds to salads and soups, slice pea pods for stir-fry, and use celery leaves as you would fresh herbs to add flavor and aroma. There are lots of ways to use the veggie from root to tip.

And whatever else you don't use, compost!

Using the wrong tools

Keep two cutting boards on hand to prevent cross-contamination or pungent flavors. You can choose a hardwood cutting board that is resistant to nicks and scratches where bacteria can get trapped. If you use a plastic cutting board (which is more prone to nicks and scratches from your knife), choose one that is dishwasher-safe for easier sanitation.

Always work with sharpened knives. A dull knife doesn't cut cleanly but rather mashes and damages the vegetables cell walls. You don't need so many knives that you're prepared for hand-to-hand combat, but a good chef's knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife are invaluable. Use the chef's knife for most jobs from chopping carrots and breaking down a head of broccoli into florets to cutting open pumpkin or hard squash. The chef's knife is the workhorse of vegetable prep. A paring knife is small and thin and does well in small places, like trimming leaves, cutting garlic into slivers, or coring tomatoes. The jagged edge of a serrated knife does a great job of grabbing onto smooth-surfaced vegetables like tomatoes when slicing.

It doesn't hurt to keep a pair of scissors around, either. Snip herbs, cut off the pointy tips of artichoke leaves, and lop off the tops of green beans. If you need precision, a mandoline will deliver. Create beautiful ribbons, fine shreds, or julienne cuts. It's a lot quicker than using a knife, and your results will be consistent. With proper safety, it's a great veggie-prep helper.