How to Store Broccoli
Preserving broccoli grown in your home garden allows you to enjoy your harvest long after plants have stopped bearing and all that remains in the vegetable garden are spent plants. Even if you’re not a gardener, you can also preserve store-bought broccoli, taking advantage of lower seasonal prices and sales to buy in bulk.
Broccoli, a Cool-Season Crop
Botanically classified as Brassica oleracea (Italica Group) in the Brassicaceae plant family, which also includes cauliflower, cabbage, collards, kale and broccoli rabe (also called broccoli raab), broccoli is a cool-season vegetable like its botanical cousins. This means that the peak growing season during its life cycle is during the cool weather in spring and autumn.
When hot weather begins knocking on summer’s door and temperatures begin approaching 80°F, cool-weather crops such as broccoli plants start to decline and the tight green flower buds begin to open in a process called bolting. This means the yellow broccoli flowers start blooming and will eventually produce seeds unless the broccoli is harvested before seeds can form.
If your crop has already started flowering in the garden, all isn’t lost because the edible flowers can be used in salads, soups, or other dishes. Even broccoli seeds, the final step in broccoli bolting, are edible, and they add a crunchy texture to many meals, including soups and stir-fry dishes.
Best Way to Store Broccoli
Canning is not a recommended preservation method for broccoli. The high temperatures needed to process this vegetable under pressure soften broccoli to the point that it’s mushy and lacks flavor.
The best way to store broccoli is in the refrigerator (short-term fresh storage) or in the freezer (longer-term preservation). But even before you prepare to store broccoli, choosing healthy heads and stems heightens successful preservation.
Pre-Storage Gardening Tips for Broccoli
Harvest or purchase broccoli when it has dark green heads and the stalk is fairly slim but firm. As stalks increase in width, they become thicker and tougher. Look for tightly closed buds on the broccoli florets, which are the individual stalked flowerheads that collectively make up a composite head of broccoli.
When these buds begin to open, they’ll turn bright yellow. Any yellowing you see is a clue that the broccoli has passed its peak flavor and is becoming bitter.
If you harvest broccoli well before it begins flowering by severing the main head, many types of broccoli will produce side shoots. These side shoots won’t likely form large heads like the initial one you severed, but they’ll grow into smaller heads that are completely edible.
How to Store Broccoli in the Refrigerator
Unlike some veggies and fruits that are best kept at room temperature for short-term storage, broccoli is best stored cold. If you’ve harvested or purchased broccoli to eat fresh or to cook within a few days, the refrigerator is the best way to store broccoli during this time.
You can store broccoli longer than this in your fridge, but its vitamin content decreases the longer it’s stored, and the broccoli florets and stalks will become limp. Depending on how mature broccoli is when you place it in the fridge, the green flower buds may actually produce the beginnings of yellow flowers even in cold storage.
Remove broccoli leaves and rinse the head with cool water to dislodge any sand, dirt and pests. This is especially important for broccoli you harvest from your garden, but even market broccoli benefits from a good rinsing. Pat the broccoli dry, and store in a perforated plastic bag.
If you use the plastic bag from the store where you purchased the broccoli, poke holes in the bag for ventilation. Otherwise, a solid plastic bag can hold in too much moisture and cause broccoli to become slimy, another no-no for eating or preservation. You can also purchase reusable perforated veggie bags for refrigerator storage.
How to Store Broccoli in the Freezer
Instead of packing fresh broccoli into freezer bags or containers before freezing it, a little more prep helps preserve its freshness better. Make a salt solution by dissolving 4 teaspoons of salt into 1 gallon of water. Place the whole broccoli head into the brine, and let it soak for 30 minutes.
Brining and then blanching the broccoli will help prepare it for freezer storage.
Drain the broccoli, and slice it lengthwise so that the florets measure 1 ½ inches or less in diameter. Place the broccoli florets in a colander and rinse under running water. After the water drains, place the broccoli in boiling water and blanch it for three minutes. You can also steam the broccoli for five minutes.
Put the hot broccoli in ice water to cool it quickly before draining the water and patting the florets dry. Tightly pack into freezer-safe bags or plastic containers, without leaving any head space. Seal the containers, squeezing out any air if you’re using bags before sealing the bags, and write the date on containers before placing the prepared broccoli into your freezer.
The typical window of storage time that maximizes broccoli’s quality is between 8 and 12 months at most.
Victoria Lee Blackstone is a horticulturist, nursery owner, and writer for the green industry. After studying botany and microbiology at Clemson, she worked in the Horticulture Dept. for the University of Georgia as a Master Gardener Coordinator. Blackstone has been a Master Gardener course instructor for 15 years, teaching her class in phytopathology as part of the required Master Gardener curriculum.