Sure, having an abundance of available produce to choose from is a wonderful thing. But when you find yourself at the grocery store or farmer's market, staring at heaps of tomatoes and pyramids of avocados, you may feel more daunted than grateful. How do you choose the freshest and most flavorful produce for tonight's dinner?
It's always a safe bet to avoid produce that is bruised, dented, moldy or in contact with other moldy items. Beyond that, different produce has different signs of ripeness and quality. When in doubt, ask a produce clerk or farm-stand worker for advice: they're typically happy to share their knowledge.
- Asparagus: Stalks should be firm but pliable and bright green. Choosing between thin and thick stalks is a personal choice; thick ones have more nutrients, but some people prefer the texture of thinner asparagus. Pick asparagus of uniform thickness so stalks cook evenly.
- Avocados: Technically a fruit, avocados are nonetheless typically found with vegetables. Look for avocados with smooth unblemished skin, but don't depend on color alone, as different varieties have different shades. Hold an avocado in the palm of your hand and gently squeeze. Ripe ones will have some give, similar to the texture of a ripe peach.
- Broccoli: The best broccoli is bright green and the florets are very compact.
- Corn: Run your fingers over a cob of corn to feel the kernels. You want to feel full, plump kernels and no empty spots. The silky tassel at the top of the cob should be light brown and wet, not dry or black.
- Greens: Lettuce, kale, spinach and other leafy greens should have firm leaves and even color. You can wash off a little dirt and sand at home.
- Peppers: A single pepper may have some variation in color, and that's normal. The most flavorful peppers have deep, rich color, and they should have smooth, firm skin.
- Squash: While the best squash has a rich color, it's okay if a squash has a lighter patch where it once rested on the ground - however, that patch shouldn't be green. Pick a squash that feels heavy (compare squash of similar sizes to get a sense of their average heft) and has a dry, intact stem.
- Tomatoes: Ripe, flavorful tomatoes are heavy and have deep color. Give their stems a sniff, and pick tomatoes that have a sweet smell.
- Apples: Think about what you're going to use apples for when considering your options. Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady apples are great for baking. Honeycrisps are also good apples to eat raw, as are Cortlands, Fujis and Jonagolds.
- Bananas: It's easy to get this right. Just pick bananas that are bright yellow to eat right away, or greener bananas if you want to eat them in a few days.
- Berries: Gently turn a container of berries around in your hands to examine it from all angles. You want berries that are brightly colored and plump. If the container is stained with color, the fruit may be overly ripe.
- Grapes: Fresh grapes have firm, green stems. Look for a bag free of any brown, shriveled grapes.
- Melons: In melon varieties that have a netlike texture, such as cantaloupe, the netting should be thick and well defined. These melons should smell sweet at their "belly buttons," the place where the stem was once attached. The color underneath the netting should have an orange or gold tint, not green or white. Smooth melons, like watermelon and honeydew, should also have rich color. The skin of a honeydew and the discolored patch on a watermelon should be a creamy yellow, not green. Thump a watermelon with your hand and listen for a thud, or shake a honeydew and listen for rattling seeds: these are signs of ripeness.
- Pineapples: A ripe pineapple is yellow-orange, has unwrinkled skin, crisp green leaves and a detectable sweet smell.