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Pick-a-peck: produce pointers

Here's a thread to collect hints for choosing the best items of fresh produce - beyond the obvious things like wilting and size. Please add your own expertise.

RED DELICIOUS APPLES - Usually, they are anything but. In a pommology book, I read that for the sweetest, non-mealy ones, avoid the ones that are very dark red all over. Look for striations in the color, the overall apple being no darker than the darker of the red bars on the CH banner.
CARROTS - Avoid thick ones with cracks, as they will most likely be woody and bitter.
CITRUS - Choose pieces that are heavy for their size, to get the juiciest ones. For thinnest skins, choose pieces that are shiny, and with smoother skins rather than those with more distinct pores.
PINEAPPLE - If other people have already been plucking center leaves, that test is useless. Look for the ones with the greatest pinkish blush. A ripe pineapple has a heady, sweet aroma when you sniff the stem end. If it only smells slightly, keep it at room temp until the aroma develops.
TOMATO - To ripen tomatoes, keep them at room temp, stem end DOWN.
PEACHES and PEARS - They say these just soften after picking, but don't ripen further. I don't think that's true. Heavy fruit is the juiciest. Really hard ones won't ever get sweeter. Look for pieces that are slightly tender, with a blush, and keep them at room temperature until the aroma intensifies.
CANTALOUPE - A ripe cantaloupe has a slightly pinkish blush. Shaking it tells you nothing about sweetness. The stem end should smell fragrant. Pick the ripest looking one you can find, and leave it on the counter if it doesn't already smell ripe.
HONEYDEW - Same sniffing, shaking, and ripening as above, but look for the raised webbing of lines - called "sugar lines" - a yellow blush, and a slightly tacky feel, as if rosin had been rubbed on the skin. Finish ripening on the counter.
GRANNY SMITH APPLES - If you like them very tart and very crisp, pick shiny dark green ones with lots of white freckles.
SWEET RED ONIONS - According to a greengrocer I spoke with, look for squat ones with flat ends.
BING CHERRIES - The sweetest ones are shiny, dark, and - surprisingly - hard.
PLUMS - Should have some give when gentle pressure is applied, and have a slightly tacky, whitish "rosin" on the skin.
THOMPSON SEEDLESS GRAPES - Choose bunches that have a slightly golden tinge.
STRAWBERRIES - They get redder after picking, but not sweeter. They should smell intensely sweet. Avoid ones with white shoulders, as they have little flavor.

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  1. For strawberries I always go with smell. I've had intensely sweet strawberries with white shoulders. If they don't smell fragrant I don't buy them.

    For grapes I look for fresh stems and firm fruit.

    For cantaloupe, I know I've read that they don't ripen on the counter and just get softer but my experience is that they do get sweeter if bought firm as they sit and "age" on the counter.

    1. Passion fruit - when it's ripe the surface is getting wrinkled, rather than smooth. It get juicier as it ripens.

      1. Seasonality is a huge, huge, portion of picking good fruit.

        1. Nice, I am going to pass this on to the kid.

          1. Since I have never been a pineapple leaf-puller, when I selected a wildly-fragrant, ripened-to-perfection specimen at H-Mart this week, I looked at the leaf crown. It appeared full; I do not beleive anyone had removed a center leaf. I tried tugging on the innermost one, which was firmly entrenched. Then I bought the pineapple, took it home, put it on the counter, and butchered it the next day. I've never had a better one.

            EGGPLANT - For the most part, the lighter the color, the milder the eggplant. The white ones, therefore, are worth buying when you find them, as are the long thin Asian ones, which are on the mild side even when they are purple. Unfortunately, the most common supermarket eggplant is the large Purple Globe, which has high potential for bitterness. Early-season eggplants have fewer seeds and are less bitter. Look for shiny, tight-skinned ones with no soft spots or other blemishes, and use them promptly.

            BELL PEPPERS - Green ones are the least sweet. The ones that have turned partly red are sweeter, and of course the fully red ones are quite sweet. They also have more vitamin C than citrus. Purple bell peppers are green inside. Their skin turns green when frozen raw.

            2 Replies
            1. re: greygarious

              EGGPLANT (addendum to greygarious) - for the common purple eggplant found in many markets in North America, look for thinner eggplants that have a smaller bottom. This means that it will have fewer seeds per the amount of flesh. Also, the more sheen, and fewer dried out parts, means a fresher eggplant.

              1. re: greygarious

                Disappointing but true: The purple versions of green vegetables (e.g., peppers, string beans, asparagus) are all green inside, and they all turn green throughout when cooked. If you want to enjoy the purple color, you need to eat them raw.

              2. Lychees - the redder, the fresher.

                1. Zucchini, summer squash, eggplant--smooth skin, no softness, smaller is better

                  Salad greens--if it says organic, ignore a few insect holes

                  In general, I buy at the farmers' market so I know it's in season. If I buy at the regular market, I still try to buy what's in season. For me, that means no fresh tomatoes until July, when I buy them ripe even with broken skin if I'm eating them that day.

                  1. I just came back from the Farmers' Market...the stone fruit is in from Fresno. Peaches large and small, two kinds of cherries and apricots. Tried a few and will wait until next week to buy, they still seemed a little pallid. Also the first green beans, those I bought! (Also leeks, cauliflower, broccoli and green and yellow zucchini but they've been around for a month at least.)

                    1. greygarious - best thread title ever, milady.

                      1. Greygarious, first off, great thread.

                        MANGOES - They are ripest when they look somewhat "old" (i.e. more spots and less sheen to the skin). This includes being shriveled at the stem end. The feel will also be less firm.

                        PEARS - Same as Mangoes.

                        CAVENDISH BANANAS (i.e. the conventional yellow bananas) - The more brown spots, the riper and sweeter the banana.

                        ONIONS - Press your thumb against the stem end and feel for the "give". The less "give" the onion has, the fresher it is. That is, the onion "rings" are more tightly packed.

                        ARTICHOKES - The leaves of the artichoke should be tightly clinging to itself.

                        CARROTS - The carrots should not bend easily, not, at the other end of the spectrum, seem woody.

                        RHUBARB - Same as Carrots. Also, the color of the Rhubarb (that is, whether it is more red than green) should have little influence on your purchase since it has almost no effect on flavor or freshness.

                        CELERY - Similar to Carrots, they should not bend easily, and the leaves on the bloom end should look fresh and edible (not wilted or dried out).

                        BUTTERNUT SQUASH - These have a long shelf life, but look for smaller squashes since they are sweeter (this was actually tested by Cook's Illustrated). Also, look for butternut squashes that are longer than they are round at the bottom...this way you are getting a smaller seed pocket and more edible flesh.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: DougRisk

                          Carrots: A tip from a local organic vegetable stand is that the leafy green portion attached to the carrots ("the tops") are a good indicator of how fresh the carrots are. However, if one decides to buy the carrots, remove the tops as soon as conveniently possible, particularly if one is planning to consume the carrots at a later time (plop in the veggie bin of the frig and forget about them for a while). The tops continue to draw nutrients from the carrot bottoms , where all of the stored yumminess is.

                          1. re: DougRisk

                            ARTICHOKES should feel heavy for their size, too, meaning that they will have more juicy flesh and not be dried out.

                            LEMONS should be heavy, as this indicates that they will be juicier.

                          2. At a peach farm once, the farmer's wife told me to always check the stem area when picking peaches. If it's green or greenish-yellow, it was picked too soon. If there's a nice blush on the skin and the area around the stem is fully yellow, it was picked ripe enough.

                            Then I usually put them in a paper lunch bag for at least a day -- longer if they are still too firm.

                            It's rarely failed me yet!

                            3 Replies
                              1. re: eamcd

                                We've heard more than once that peaches and nectarines that have freckling typically have better flavor and more sweetness. In general, we've found this to be true. In fact, this tip falls in the general "ugly fruit tastes better" category. Stone fruit growers at the farmers markets typically pitch the notion that "ugly fruit," fruit that has freckles, don't look perfect, etc., taste better in general. I think one has to take this with a grain of salt. Obviously, fruit that has been bruised, squished, scarred or otherwise show signs of abuse should be passed on unless you get a great price for it and are planning on doing something with them immediately. But the notion that "ugly fruit," that show signs of freckling, speckling and streaking are considered badges of honor by fruit growers and will prove their worth by letting you sample them. Sales pitch or truth? :)

                                1. re: eamcd

                                  I read that several years ago, and it hasn't failed me yet- great ad vice.

                                2. Pineapple Myths: 1. Plucking a leaf off of the crown of the pineapple does NOT indicate ripeness. It actually indicates a pineapple that is starting to go bad! Myth 2. Pineapples do NOT ripen. They go soft and then go bad. They are picked ripe. If you leave them on the table for a few days the flesh turns translucent and starts to ferment. Keep it outside of the refrigerator for a few more days and you'll wind up with mushy pineapple wine. When you purchase a pineapple it should be ready to eat. Refrigerate them as soon as you get home. Oh, and twist off and dispose of the crown first. There's no reason to keep it affixed to the pineapple. Color: Buy them gold colored, very firm and have green leafs in the crown with little or NO brown discoloration. Green pineapples are nice to garnish a cocktail with because they absorb the flavors of the drink but they are NOT fun to eat. Finally, don't be afraid to do a blind tasting of pineapple. Some famous TV "experts" have said that the gold color on a pineapple means nothing. Or that spending more for a "brand name" pineapple is wasted money. NONSENSE! Do a bind tasting between gold and green pineapples. Do a blind tasting between brand name pineapples and other brands. See for yourself. Your palate knows the truth!

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: bobbymak

                                    Your first myth was mentioned upthread. In the second, you contradict yourself. Apparently you think that the myth is that pineapples DO ripen after picking. My experience contradicts that.
                                    In Boston area supermarkets, fewer than 10% of the pineapples in any supermarket produce section are ripe enough to be good if immediately consumed. When the best one in the bunch is still not as ripe as it should be, I leave it on the counter and sniff the bottom daily. Usually the perfume increases over the course of a few days, at which point I butcher and refrigerate it. I am careful to look for soft spots and to butcher it if any appear, since the whole thing will spoil, ripe or not, if I don't take it appart and chill it. Neither do I buy pineapples by brand. I've had great and disappointing ones regardless of brand, or whether they are from Hawaii or Latin America.

                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      Someone relayed to me that a ripe pineapple will have the same size eyes uniformly from top to bottom. This indicates it was allowed to ripen before picking. If the eyes are smaller near the top of the fruit, it won't be as ripe or sweet, because it was picked when immature.

                                      1. re: amyzan

                                        That's fascinating, thank you for the advice.

                                        1. re: buttertart

                                          Hey, you're welcome. I may have heard it here, years ago. Just passing it on, as all good food should be.

                                      2. re: greygarious

                                        This has also been my experience with pineapples. I really think smell is a far better way to tell they are ready to eat than just about any other tip. And I've never thought of "butchering" in relation to pineapples! I'm going to have to use that term.

                                    2. Eggplant should be light for its size.
                                      Conversely, artichokes should be heavy for their size.
                                      When picking citrus, smell the stem end. If it doesn't smell like anything, it won't taste like anything.The same goes for peaches.
                                      A good watermelon will have a nice hollow sound when you tap it. Pretend you're checking for a wall stud.

                                      1. Anyone have a good way to choose avocados? They have them at our Farmers' Market every week but I never fail to pick a bad one--too ripe, never ripens, black spots. I squeeze them and when they feel soft as a ripe peach that's the one I buy, but still often flavorless. What are the secrets?

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: escondido123

                                          Sometimes, there are no good avocados to be had, but the way I learned as a child growing up in CA, where they're usually good and cheap, is to make sure they are uniformly slightly soft all over. If there are any spots squishier than any others, skip it. I like them a little less soft than a ripe peach because you can always let them sit in a brown bag for a day or so. The key is UNIFORM squishiness.

                                          1. re: Isolda

                                            I totally agree but that is not easy to come by. So many of those picked ripe have small dark spots which taste bad. I'd say that out of three potentially good ones, only one comes through with texture and taste. Well, at least they're cheap where I live.

                                          2. re: escondido123

                                            I don't have a suggestion, really. I just look for ones with a little give. I just had to comment on our grocery store's ever-present signs -- "Ripe Now!". They even put this sticker on each avocado. The whole bin is almost always rock hard.

                                            1. re: brooklynkoshereater

                                              The one you want should feel heavy/dense for its size - the more dense the better. It should be very firm and no signs of molding (obviously).

                                              1. re: bulavinaka

                                                What bulavinaka said, and depending on the variety, a bright skin is a good idea. Sugar spots or warts are fine, and can be shaved off, if you eat it skin and all. They're often a sign the squash was allowed to mature on the vine, but there are also smoother skinned varieties. Looking at the blossom end and stem end is often a good barometer--if there is no shriveling, you've a fresh one.

                                                1. re: amyzan

                                                  Do you *want* a fresh KABOCHA? BUTTERNUT squash are definitely better, with a deeper, sweeter flavor, if they are stored for at least a few weeks. I have learned not to buy the local New England ones harvested in late summer, when often they still have a greenish blush at the stem end. The ones left on the vine until colder weather have deeper orange flesh, with more, better flavor. Note: the capitals are to make scanning easier; I'm not yelling.

                                                  1. re: greygarious

                                                    I'll personally take kabocha over butternut any day. Butternut for us is great to make soups with - thickens nicely after sauteed or roasted and added to soups (great in curry shrimp coconut soup). Kabocha for us can be used that way but we also like it roasted or added to buta kakuni. A good kabocha is the love child of a pumpkin and a bag of chestnuts.

                                                    1. re: bulavinaka

                                                      I too prefer kabocha to butternut save for the curried squash and apple bisque I make with butternut. It needs the extra liquid in the latter and it would take prepping several kabochas to equal the butternut amount. I love your analogy though when I steal it, I'll say an acorn squash and a bag of chestnuts. '-)

                                            2. With any variety of apple, if they have an apple scent, esp a strong one, they will be soft and mealy. I go for the nearly scent-free apples.