I’m embarrassingly excited by all things food (and drink, obviously). Like a corner bakery wafting its wares down the street, ripe, fresh fruit beckons with its heady, fragrant scent; it basically jumps into the cart. But how do you know if it’s ripe for the eating, or stale and flavorless like styrofoam? My chef’s compilation of poking, prodding and sniffing for the best fruit. (Read the companion piece on picking vegetables)
In the United States, apples are best from September through November, after they’re harvested, but they are available year-round from climes around the globe. Although they come in colors from yellow to orange, a few indications are consistent with ripe apples. Pick specimens that are free of bruises, have firm flesh and an apple fragrance.
You might think avocados are vegetables, but they’re not. It’s a common misnomer that savory produce equals vegetables and sweet means fruit. But, in the scientific sense, anything containing a seed is actually a fruit. Grocers differentiate between savory and sweet because it’s easier… and legal. The “legal” definition of fruits and vegetables put tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. in the vegetable category when they are, technically, fruits. But here’s the kicker: Some produce, like the tomato, are technically both a fruit and a vegetable. Go figure. If you want to geek a bit, this is a good forum on the topic. A ripe avocado will be light brown and soft to the touch. But be careful of really soft avocados that are past their prime. If you press the fruit and it dents, it’s overripe. But you can buy hard, green ones and ripen them quickly by placing them in a brown paper bag on the counter. Florida avocadoes ripen quicker than Haas from California.
A potassium powerhouse, these soft, flavorful fruit are the runaway favorite of athletes and kids alike. You’ve probably eaten them your whole life and know how to pick them. But, just in case, yellow, bruise-free selections should be the goal. Green bananas are starchy and will ripen at room temperature, especially if stored in a paper bag.
The season for fresh berries lasts from May to October. The best specimens are firm to the touch, have a deep blue/purple/black color and are free of blemishes and mold. Store these critters in one layer in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Do not wash until ready to use because the moisture will enhance the production of mold.
Ripe cantaloupes have grayish-beige skins with white-ish bumps on them. Honeydew are creamy white to yellow-green They’re both in season from early summer to early fall. They should have a strong odor and give slightly to the touch at the ends. Choose the heavier ones with no bruises or soft spots and you’ll be safer. Melons will ripen if stored at room temperature, but should be stored in the refrigerator if already ripe. Do not store near garlic or onions, as the fruit will absorb that odor. If necessary, wrap it in plastic wrap to avoid the issue.
There are two types of cherries: sweet and sour. The ones good for snacking are, obviously, the sweet ones. Look for glossy, plump, dark red cherries with their stems attached. Available June through September and 70 percent of our cherries comes from the Pacific Northwest.
Citrus fruits are available year-round depending on the type of fruit, of which there are many. The peak season is January through June and the vast majority of American citrus comes from Florida. Choose selections that are heavy and firm with lots of fragrance and no soft spots. FYI: a brightly colored orange is not an indication of quality because they are often dyed with food coloring.
We’re mostly used to dried figs, like those found in an American favorite, the Fig Newton. But fresh figs taste heavenly. They are, unfortunately, hard to find due to a short season from late summer to early fall. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across some, look for soft, plump selections with light brown skin and stems intact.
Grapes are now available year-round to the delight of grape lovers throughout the world but domestic grapes are a fall fruit, from August to November. The best grapes are free of brown spots, are juicy and firm to the touch. Avoid bunches with molded grapes because that flavor can permeate an entire cluster (good for making late harvest wines, not so good for snacking).
Formerly only spied in cans while perusing the Asian aisle, fresh lychee’s availability is growing. To clear up the controversy, lychee can be pronounce two ways: “Lee-chee” (the syllables rhyme) is the Mandarin Chinese way and “Lai-chee” is the Cantonese way. Available early summer through early fall, choose fruit with rose colored skin with the stems still intact. Store in the fridge.
Tropical mangoes are available year-round and a ripe one will be super fragrant at the stem, give slightly to the touch and should have a slight blush of orange or red to its skin. Avoid those with shriveled skin. They will ripen at room temperature.
These fruit are best June – August from this hemisphere and December-January from the Southern Hemisphere. The peach’s smooth skin relative, the nectarine, is a bit sweeter and firmer than its cousin. Choose fruit that gives to the touch, has an unmistakable fragrance and bright colors. Even though under-ripe nectarine/peaches/apricots/plums will ripen a bit after picking, avoid hard ones. You can also ripen them by placing them in a paper bag on the counter.
Pears can ripen after they have been picked, and are in season mostly in the fall. A ripe pear gives slightly to the touch and smells very aromatic. Pick those that don’t have any soft spots or brown bruises. They ripen if left out at room temperature and then store in the refrigerator for up to week.
A ripe pineapple should be firm to the touch, have bright green leaves and be heavy for its size. It should also smell really good. Avoid those with bruises or soft spots. They will continue to ripen on the countertop for a few days.
Peak season for these berries is March through August, depending on where you live. Knowing a ripe strawberry is as easy as lifting the fruit up to your nose and giving it a whiff. If it smells like a strawberry, you’ve found a winner. Choose berries that are smaller in size, as the larger ones tend to be a little watery. They should be brightly colored, plump and free of mold and dark spots. They will store up to 3 days in a moisture-proof container. Do not wash until ready to use because the moisture will enhance the production of mold.
Mostly a summer fruit, watermelons are grown and revered the world over. If you’ve seen somebody thumping the side of a melon, don’t laugh; a hollow sound is the indicator that it’s ripe. The blemish-free rind should give slightly to the touch and have a dull sheen to it. If you’re buying an already-cut watermelon, look for slices with lots of black seeds; an abundance of white seeds means it’s immature. Cut melons keep well in the refrigerator up to two days, and whole ones up to a week. If fridge storage is not possible, store in a cool, dry place.