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.
Blueberries: The blueberry has lately become a celebrity fruit, lauded for its high levels of antioxidants (such as Vitamin C), as well as folate, magnesium, and fiber. When choosing blueberries look for those that are large and round with a deep blue-purple or blue-gray color; a reddish hue indicates they're not yet ripe. On the other end of the spectrum, overripe blueberries, like raspberries, will stain or dampen their carton. Perfectly ripe blueberries will have what produce aficionados call a "waxy bloom"—a frosty look that indicates a fine, tasty berry. These are most sublime in July (which is also known as National Blueberry Month).
Peaches and Nectarines: These members of the stone family (fruits with a single stone-type pit) are some of the easiest produce to choose well. Basically, you want a fruit that's firm but yields slightly to gentle pressure. As for color, just be sure to avoid any that are marked with green. You should also pass on fruit that's been over-handled or bruised; this is easy to spot: The fruit below the bruise will be loose and the skin may be broken. If you're shopping at an outdoor market, you'll be able to detect a sweet aroma emanated by these fruits. The season for nectarines and peaches varies slightly from climate to climate, but they are both ripe in summer months, with many peach varieties yielding full flavor in August. (Interesting tidbit: Nectarines and peaches differ by only one gene, according to Alice Waters—the gene that accounts for a peach's fuzz.)
Cherries: Most fruit can now be found at specialty markets all year round: Growers import fruit from around the world, depending on where the fruit is in season. But, according to Latilla, cherries (along with pomegranates, cranberries, and persimmons) are among the few truly seasonal fruits, available just one time a year. Cherries appear for a precious few months, generally from June to September. Seek out cherries that have fresh, green stems and are plump, firm, and free from spots, blemishes, and bruises.
Plums: The skin color of a plum can range from reddish to nearly black, so it's not advised to judge on the basis of hue alone. Instead, look for plums that, like other stone fruits, give gently to light pressure, and avoid those that are either too hard or too soft. The large variety of plums on the market today, from black plums to red plums to pluots (a hybrid of an apricot and a plum), makes this fruit season quite long—from June through October or so.
Cantaloupe: Cantaloupe, the most popular member of the melon family, is also one of the hardest fruits to choose well. You've likely seen people shaking, squeezing, weighing, and smelling them. A ripe, un-refrigerated cantaloupe will emit an earthy and sweet aroma, but unless you're fortunate enough to shop in an outdoor market, this isn't the best identifier. Though some fruit guides attest that a "heavy" melon equals a ripe melon, the lift test is not always ideal when confronted with a mountain of melons at a crowded market. Latilla says the most infallible tactic for choosing cantaloupe is to go for the one with a rosy glow. (Click here for an image: Notice the soft orange poking through the netted skin in the photo in the cantaloupe on the top; the cantaloupe on the bottom, lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, is not yet ready for consumption.) Latilla also notes that a cantaloupe should give ever so slightly to pressure on the blossom end (opposite the stem end). Cantaloupe is at its finest from June to September.
Honeydew: The honeydew is one of the most mysterious melons out there. Though the same rules generally apply as for cantaloupe (a sweet smell when unrefrigerated, a yield to gentle pressure on the blossom end), a honeydew's opaque rind and large size make it more difficult to distinguish the good from the bad. (You should probably resign yourself to some trial and error.) The honeydew's peak season is slightly later in the year than that of the cantaloupe— late July or August rather than June.
Watermelon: Here's a great trick for identifying ripe watermelon, courtesy of Latilla: The area where a watermelon has rested on the truck, or on the ground, or on the fruit stand, tends to flatten out and turn yellow. The wider the spread of this area, and the more intensely yellow the color, the sweeter and riper the watermelon. Though less foolproof (particularly if your aural skills are subpar), you can also try knocking on the melon—a thud indicates the melon is ripe; a hollow sound indicates it's still got a way to go. Watermelons are in season from May through September.
Pineapple: Chances are your pineapple will be sweet regardless of how well you choose your fruit; pineapples do not continue to ripen after picking and are thus only for sale once fully ripe. You'll still want to double check for deep yellow color peeking through the pineapple rind. Ideally, this color will span the entire length of the fruit, spreading from the base of the pineapple up to the stem area. Many people pluck leaves from the stem, using the ease with which they come free as an indicator of ripeness, but this is a myth. You should, however, look for deep green leaves and avoid those pineapples with brown, dry leaves. The major pineapple growers in the United States are in Hawaii, and their peak season is from March to June.
Author's Note: These notes are general guidelines for choosing the best of the most common varieties of fruits found at a basic supermarket. Specific peak seasons (and even fruit-picking techniques) for countless more unique varieties, from the Casselman plum to the Summer Lady peach, which are found at specialty stores and at local markets, can vary greatly from what is listed here.
The author thanks Vito Latilla of the Manhattan Fruit Exchange for his time and produce wisdom.