Most of us know the feeling of buying fruits or vegetables only to find out that they're either already spoiled on the inside or so under-ripe that they need to be left out for days before eating. Thankfully it's easy to pick fresh produce, as long as you remember a few basic tips.
Every fruit and vegetable has its own clues to its freshness, but you don't need to remember a laundry list of specifics in order to walk away with something ripe and tasty. We've discussed how you should properly store your food, but if you're standing in the fruit & veg section trying to decide if something is safe to buy, here are a few things to know.
The most important thing to remember when inspecting produce is to use your senses. Ask yourself how the item smells, how it feels, and whether it looks appealing, or at least like the other items in the store. Here are the basics.
Fruits and Melons
Before you start squeezing every fruit you see in the store to determine if it's ripe, pick it up and turn it over in your hands. The surface should be largely smooth and even, with a firm-but not rock hard-surface. If you feel pits and dents under the surface, the flesh of the fruit has probably been damaged by shipping, or is slowly rotting. The flesh should be firm, but give a little. If your plums, berries or nectarines are rock hard, they're not ripe. Citrus fruits that are too firm are likely dry on the inside. Also, pay attention to weight: heaviness can indicate how juicy a fruit or melon is, especially with oranges, lemons and watermelon.
Give the fruit a good whiff. There's no need to hold it directly up to your nose, but you should pick up a light aroma from it. A strong aroma can indicate over-ripeness, and if the fruit smells a bit sour or stinky, you're probably holding an apple or bag of grapes that's past its prime. A light, sweet smell is a good indicator that your fruit is fresh and ripe. Smell is particularly important when it comes to melons and pineapple, which can smell very strongly when past their prime, so the lighter and sweeter the better.
Tree-ripened fruit should have even coloration across the surface, and avoid anything with dark marks and spots, or citrus fruits with white streaks or colours on the surface. Melons don't give too many visual or colour cues, but look for the obvious: bruises, dents, and other pockmarks. Don't dismiss a vine-ripened melon because of a little scarring on one side. As long as it's not tender or thinner than the rest of the rind, it's likely only the place where the melon rested on the ground while ripening.
Vegetables and Leafy Greens
Some of the same rules for fruit apply to vegetables. Pay attention to the surface of the vegetable and make sure it's consistent, evenly coloured, and firm all the way around. With most vegetables like cucumbers, capscium, onions and potatoes, you want them to be as firm as possible. Even the gentle give you look for in fruit can indicate over-ripeness in vegetables. Softness in specific areas is generally an indicator of slow rotting or bruising, even if you don't see anything obvious that would indicate spoilage.
With leafy greens like lettuce and spinach, look for firm, crisp, and plump leaves that are consistently coloured. Expect a little brownness and a few tears in the leaves due to shipping or handling, but they should be the exception, not the rule. The majority of the leaves should be green, smooth, and unbroken. You also want to make sure that the leaves give a good snap if you break one. Look for the same plumpness and crispness with green or string beans or peas in the pod. Check out this eHow video on how to choose leafy greens for a few more tips.
Root vegetables like potatoes, garlic and onions should be firm and tough, as well. Avoid root vegetables with cracks on the base, this means it's too dry. Most vegetables don't give you clues to their ripeness by smell the way that fruits do, but you'll know the vaguely stinky smell of slow rot or mould when you smell it. It's common sense, but steer clear if something doesn't smell right.
Trust Your Senses
It's worth noting that most commercial farms pick fruits and vegetables long ahead of their ideal ripeness. Try to see through the regular washings and coats of wax they get, and trust your nose and sense of touch as much as you do your eyes. An apple that's shiny, evenly coloured, and heavily waxed but super-soft to the touch is probably mushy and no good.
We're big fans of farmers markets and local grocery stores, which often have better turnover and are more likely to have produce that hasn't been in cold storage for months.
Did we miss your favourite inspection trick? Share your tips in the comments.