I am a highly insecure fruit shopper. When at the grocery store or market, I'm convinced that everyone around me knows something that I don't. I watch them tapping, shaking, smelling, squeezing, poking, and prodding the produce. They smugly bag their berries, heave their honeydew into the cart, and wheel their gems away. I inevitably feel dispirited, certain I am destined for their sloppy seconds. The melons mock me—is there sweet flesh beneath their opaque exteriors? The strawberries taunt me: I recently ate pale strawberries that were sweet as sugar and deep red strawberries that were tart and bitter. But then I realized that I could change. With some careful research and by talking to the right people, I could learn the secrets of the fruit sages.
As part of my quest, I enlisted the help of reference materials, mainly Aliza Green's recent book, The Field Guide to Produce: How To Identify, Select, and Prepare Virtually Every Fruit and Vegetable at the Market and Alice Waters' beautifully illustrated Chez Panisse: Fruit. Most helpful, however, was a very thorough lesson (who knew you were supposed to eat kumquats with the skin on?) from Vito Latilla, one of three brothers who owns and operates the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in New York's Chelsea Market. (The Manhattan Fruit Exchange provides fresh fruit to countless elite restaurants in New York City. I figured if it's good enough for them, it should be good enough for me.)
Some general tips to bear in mind:
1) First, familiarize yourself with the various fruits' peak seasons. (In this article, I'll look at summer fruits … for obvious reasons.) Our markets deceive us. Every year, growers bring fruit to the marketplace earlier and earlier, before it's truly in its prime. Desperate to bite a fleshy plum and feel the sticky nectar run down our chins, we buy the overpriced produce (thus reinforcing demand and contributing to the vicious cycle). But instead of tasting the sweetness of summer, we find the fruit hard, tart, or mealy.
2) Don't be afraid to sample, particularly when buying berries or other finger fruits—it's one of the most foolproof ways to gauge quality. (Germ-phobes may want to forgo this step.) As Latilla told me, "If they don't let you taste what you're buying, you don't want to be shopping there." Obviously you can't cut open a cantaloupe at the produce stand to taste a slice, but sneaking a blueberry or two should be just fine.
3) Ask for help. A personal lesson from someone who works in the produce department, or the knowledgeable old woman picking out watermelon next to you, can help you discern which melon in an intimidating mound will render the most satisfaction.
4) Beware the olfactory myth: Smelling fruit (all varieties, from cantaloupe to apricots) has long been thought of as a way of determining ripeness. It's not an entirely incorrect strategy, but it won't help much. Today's grocery stores keep fruit cold specifically to prevent ripening, and refrigeration staves off odor. Unless you're buying fruit from a farmer's market or at a roadside fruit stand, sniffing a melon will be an exercise in futility. If you're a convenience mart kind of guy or gal, stick to some of the more specific strategies below to help you choose your fruit.
Strawberries: When picking strawberries, avoid those with white shoulders,as well as those with limp green caps. For strawberries, unlike with blueberries, size makes no difference—both large and small can be juicy and delicious. If you're buying California strawberries, you'll want to look for bright, red berries. (Some Florida varieties can be less intense in color but still have a sweet taste.) Though available all year round, strawberries are at their peak in late May and June.
Raspberries: Raspberries, the most fragile of summer fruits, can spoil in just a matter of days. So the main things you'll want to look for are berries that are free from mold and those with a strong, firm shape (avoid any that lie limp like partially deflated balloons). Another tip: Look on the bottom of the carton for staining; this may indicate some overripe berries within. Raspberries are available all summer long and are harvested in two crops—the first sometime between May and July (depending on climate) and the second usually beginning in about mid-August.
Blackberries: Blackberries are slightly sturdier than their fraternal twins, because their core tends to stay intact in the picking process (raspberries leave their core at the cane, which contributes to their hollow frailty). When choosing blackberries, go for those that look firm and sturdy, and that are bright black in color. Taking a taste test to ensure that they're not too tart doesn't hurt, either. Blackberries are in season through the summer, and are generally at their peak in July and August.