Stepping into a market this summer will show towers of colorful produce begging to be on your picnic table. Picking fresh is best in capturing the height of flavor and nutrition, so it’s important to know how to choose the perfectly ripe fruits and veggies. There’s nothing more disappointing (or costly) than coming home from a market trip only to discover you’ve grabbed under- or over-ripe goods.
You can avoid future frustration (and wasted money) this season by following these eight useful tips from the “Cooking Light Pick Fresh Cookbook.” From plump, juicy tomatoes to aromatic basil to sweet melons, this guide will help you in selecting the freshest and ripest produce from your local grocer, farmers market or even your own garden. Use your senses.
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— handle with care: Basil is delicate and bruises easily, so look for stems that aren’t wilted and don’t have dark spots. The ideal would be basil stems that don’t have a flower bud and are full of glossy leaves. Keep it out of your chilly fridge to avoid black spots.
— plump and powdery blue: Look for plump berries that are dark blue with a light blue frosting. Green or pink berries are not ripe, except the rare pink varieties. Avoid baskets of soft or mushy berries. Wait to wash until ready to use.
— pop a kernel: Husks should be moist, clingy and green. Silks should be dark brown but not dry or crisp. Pull back to reveal the top kernels and test with your fingernail; kernels should be full, plump and show a milky white liquid. Eat corn as quickly as you can after picked from the stalk: sugars turn to starch quickly and the optimal flavor is lost.
— crisp and firm: In general, avoid cucumbers that appear bloated and are turning from green to yellow. Yellowing is a typical sign that seeds are maturing (except for unusual varieties such as Lemon cucumber). Choose firm cucumbers with no sign of withering or soft spots. If in doubt, select the smallest of the type for optimum flavor and quality. If you find a bitter bite, remove ends and skins before serving.
— go for glossy: When selecting, look for eggplants with firm, glossy skin. Duller, matte skin shows its age. Size and color vary widely among types, but the eggplant should feel heavy. Avoid those with wrinkled skin, soft spots or brown patches.
— thump and sniff: Ripe cantaloupes and honeydew melons will smell noticeably fruity at the site where the stem was attached. The other end will give slightly when pressed if the melon is ripe. Ripe watermelons should be heavy with a waxy rind, and they’ll sound hollow when thumped. Field-grown watermelons will show a yellowish-white ripeness detector where they rested on the ground.
— small and tender: Look for smooth, blemish-free squashes. A small, tender squash is preferable to an oversized, seedy one. Growing your own zucchini? Pick often and go for the smaller, younger ones instead of baseball-bat wonders. A bonus of growing your own squash is harvesting the delicate blossoms for a rare treat that is often hard to find at markets.
— shop local: Naturally ripened, fresh tomatoes don’t travel well. The best flavor comes from vine-ripened fruits that were recently picked, so opt for those marked “locally grown” or grow your own. Look for tomatoes with bright, shiny skin and firm flesh that yields slightly to gentle pressure. The bonus of buying fresh? A rainbow selection of colorful varieties. Don’t refrigerate before using.