You’ve no doubt been entertained at farmers markets and in supermarket produce aisles by people trying to figure out the ripeness of fruits and vegetables. Thumpers predominate the melon bins, pullers assault pineapple leaves, and smellers roam about sniffing stems, leaves and peels. While some methods are just old wives’ tales passed down through generations, many are actually founded in science.
Watermelon is a great pretender. You can use all the tricks to determine its ripeness and still be disappointed when you finally taste it. Look for melons that have a yellow field spot, the side of the melon that laid on the ground as it matured. If that spot is white, it was likely picked too early and won’t be at the peak of sweetness. A hollow sound when you slap or tap on the rind also indicates ripeness, as does a heavy feeling when you lift it. A few blemishes on the rind are fine, as long as they don’t penetrate the green outer layer.
Ripe cantaloupes typically feel heavier than they appear and have a sweet, slightly musky aroma. Beware of overpoweringly sweet smelling cantaloupes as they are probably overripe, mushy and on the verge of spoiling. Press the “button” on the underside of the melon. If it gives to slight pressure, the cantaloupe is likely sweet and ready to eat. Slightly under ripe cantaloupes will ripen in a few days on a counter at room temperature.
Smelling fresh pineapple is the best way to test for ripeness. A sweet, sugary smell indicates ripeness; an off-putting sour smell means it was picked too early. Squeeze the pineapple for firmness. Ripe pineapples will give slightly but not be so soft you can penetrate the skin with your fingernail. Leaves that easily release from the top are another good ripeness test.
Gardener’s Note: If you ever wanted to grow your own pineapple tree (and you live in a coastal region of Southern California), read How to Grow a Pineapple Tree in California
Just like pineapple, the aroma of strawberries is a good way to measure ripeness. Strawberries with no discernible smell usually lack flavor. Choose strawberries that are red from top to bottom, as white or green hues are signs of unripe fruit. Don’t judge strawberries by appearance. Some of the most succulent strawberries are misshapen, and many of the perfectly shaped ones are sour and mealy.
Since there are so many types of mangoes, it’s hard to judge their ripeness by color. Some varieties change from yellow to orange, others from green to orange or red during the ripening process. The best sign of ripeness is a strong, mango smell near the stem. Ripe mangoes are medium-soft and relatively heavy for their size.
Hass avocadoes turn from green to black during ripening. Green varieties don’t change color as they mature, so it’s harder to determine when they are ripe. Both types should be slightly supple to the touch. Mushiness indicates overripe flesh; hardness means they need more time to develop flavor. Avocadoes ripen quickly and easily when put into a paper bag with an apple.
The best corn on the cob has husks as bright green and moist they were on the stalk. Moist silks are good signs of ripe, full kernels but if the husk is in good shape and the kernels at the end of the cob look good, brown silks are okay. Avoid corn with mildew or mold anywhere on it or ears that smell musty.
Finding the freshest produce throughout the year
The best way to get good produce on a regular basis is to find a reputable vendor and stick with them. Most vendors at Farmers Markets are glad to share their knowledge about picking the most flavorful from their crop, as well as the best way to preserve what you choose. Jot down names of the best farm stands to use as a guide for future shopping trips. The more you shop at farmers markets, the sharper your instincts become and you’ll soon be able to pick out the best on your own.