We've all done it: bought a bag of spinach with the best of intentions, only to come across it later at the bottom of the crisper—wilted, withered and slimy. Why does spinach get slimy in the first place? And can you salvage the leaves that aren't? Read on to learn all this, plus more.
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woman holding a colander with spinach
Credit: Getty Images / Kseniya Ovchinnikova

Spinach is one of the healthiest greens you can eat. High in vitamins and minerals, especially iron, it is great both raw and cooked, and it's fast and easy to prepare. But like all delicate leafy greens, it can break down and spoil quickly, and there is nothing more annoying than finding clumps of wet, slimy leaves in your container or bag of spinach. Read on to find out why that happens, how to prevent it in the future and what to do with a container of spinach that has some spoilage.

What causes spinach to go bad?

The main enemy of any leafy vegetable is moisture. Wetness creates an environment that causes the leaves to begin to break down, and they can start to rot. That slimy feel is literally decomposing plant matter. Sometimes the moisture is from water or condensation getting into the leaves; sometimes it's from the leaves themselves, which can release liquid when bruised or crushed.

How long does spinach last?

Properly packaged, undamaged spinach stored in your crisper drawer can last about a week. But it is always recommended with any fresh produce to buy what you need as close to the day you need it as possible. This ensures the freshest quality and best taste, though we know it's not always realistic to shop and cook this way!

Spinach that's purchased in fresh bundles, especially at a farmers' market, is likely to be fresher than commercially packaged spinach. However, those commercial products are often already triple washed and ready to eat, which makes you that much more likely to actually consume them. Sometimes what you gain in freshness, you lose in the extra time and effort it takes to clean and prep properly.

Does spinach from a container or bag last longer?

Whether you buy commercial spinach in a bag or a container, they are both packaged using the same method: modified atmosphere packaging. Before the package of spinach is sealed, the composition of the air inside is manipulated to create an atmosphere that enables the spinach to stay fresh longer. "Low oxygen levels help maintain the quality of fresh produce and extend shelf-life by slowing respiration and senescence in plant tissues," according to the Food and Drug Administration. This means your spinach will deteriorate more slowly than if it were packaged without concern for the oxygen level in the bag.

Whether spinach in a bag or a container lasts longer comes down to how carefully you store your spinach in the refrigerator. If you tend to toss produce in the crisper without paying attention to what's in there or rearranging the contents, then your bag of spinach may be exposed to damage. If the spinach gets smooshed or crushed, breaking the leaves and releasing their moisture, the leaves will deteriorate more quickly. Hard-shell plastic packaging protects the leaves from such damage and so they'll last longer. If there isn't a safe space in your fridge for bagged spinach, you may want to stick with the containers. When you're buying the spinach, just check carefully for any signs of moisture or bruised leaves in the container or bag before tossing it in your cart.

Which lasts longer, baby or mature spinach?

When stored properly in your fridge, both baby and mature spinach will last about a week. But mature spinach may have a slight edge over baby spinach simply because the leaves are hardier. Baby leaves are more tender and fragile. So sturdy, mature leaves may stay fresher longer since they're less likely to sustain damage, like the leaves getting crushed or broken, that will lead to decay.  

How to tell if spinach has gone bad

It is very easy to tell if spinach has gone bad: it will be dark green or greenish brown, wet or slimy, and will smell a bit like algae or garbage—and taste like it, too. 

Is it OK to eat wilted or slimy spinach?

It is not OK to eat slimy spinach. Any slimy spinach should be thrown away, along with any spinach it has come in contact with. You don't want to eat decomposing plant matter (unless you're an insect or a worm!). It's important to remember, too, that spinach (like other leafy greens) can be be contaminated with bacteria such as E. coli. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions to prepare fresh leafy greens safely and not to eat damaged greens.

It might be tempting to try and just rinse off or salvage slimy spinach, but the chance of giving yourself or your family gastric distress will not make any of you spinach fans. Always better safe than sorry: if your spinach has gotten slimy, discard it (offer up those slimy leaves to the worms in your compost pile). If your spinach is slimy when you open it on the same day you purchased it, you should be able to return it to the store for a refund or replacement.

Wilted spinach, however—leaves that are green and undamaged but just a little limp—can often be revived with a five-minute soak in ice water. (Here's a guide on how to do it.) Essentially, wilted leaves are dehydrated, so soaking them replenishes their collapsing cells with the water they have lost en route to your crisper drawer.

Is it OK to cook wilted spinach?

You can absolutely cook wilted spinach. It's past its prime for eating raw, but will not negatively impact a cooked dish. Up the yum-factor in your sautéed spinach with this recipe for Balsamic-Parmesan Sautéed Spinach, or add that spinach to a delicious Spinach & Mushroom Quiche or to a skillet or pot as with these quick and easy recipes that take just 25 minutes: Chicken & Spinach Skillet Pasta with Lemon & Parmesan and One-Pot Garlicky Shrimp & Spinach.

Bottom line

The best way to prevent spinach from going off and getting slimy is to pay close attention at the point of purchase. Make sure to thoroughly examine the bag or container of spinach, looking for any signs of moisture, broken leaves, dark spots or sliminess. Discard any spinach that is slimy or has touched slimy spinach. Wilted or withered spinach can be revived in a cold-water bath. And remember to plan ahead so you can use that bag of spinach as soon as possible after bringing it home.