What To Look For When Picking Fruits And Vegetables

by | Aug 17, 2011

Photo by Vvillamon

Most people know instinctively to avoid bruised or blemished produce, but there is much more involved in the art of choosing fruits and vegetables.

While buying fresh food is always a little bit of a craps shoot (and not every rule will apply to every piece of produce), these tips will give you the basic skills you need to hold your own at the farmers market.

What To Look For When Picking Produce

1. Bright color

After you’ve checked for bruises, blemishes and pests (harder to see on vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage, so double check), look for fruits and vegetables with the brightest, most inviting colors. The tastiest, vine-ripened produce should be vibrant, with its skin entirely saturated with color. If the item has a dull color or whitish sheen that means it is either not fully ripe or was deprived of sun or nutrients.

For fruits like cherries look for stems that are green instead of brown, since these fruits will be fresher.

2. Heavy weight

Generally you want to pick produce that is the heaviest relative to the rest of your options. Light weight produce is more likely to be dry and mealy, but heavier produce will be juicy and crisp.

The best way to tell is to pick up two similarly sized fruits, one with each hand. After you’ve tried a few it will be obvious that certain fruits are much heavier than the rest, and those are your best bets. This applies to both fruits and vegetables, but mostly to fruits.

3. Firm, but not hard

Because the best produce is moist and juicy (see point #2), it should also be perfectly plump. This means that it will be firm to the touch—think crisp and succulent—but not hard, squishy or limp.

While the perfect amount of firmness will vary for each type of produce, comparing within the batch can be very informative. For soft fruits, gently picking a piece up should tell you if it’s too soft or hard.

For vegetables with stalks like carrots and broccoli, be sure the ends don’t give too much when you try to bend them (but don’t try too hard or they might snap).

While this tip works as a general rule, keep in mind that it doesn’t apply to everything. Figs, for example, are better very soft, as are certain kinds of persimmons.

4. Fragrant aroma

Probably the most telling test of the quality of your fuit is how it smells. Unripe fruits smell like nothing, or at best the cardboard it was packed in. But ripe produce almost always smells faintly (and often overwhelmingly) of how it is supposed to taste.

Hold the part of the fruit that was attached to the stem close to your nose and breathe deeply. Compare a few of your options. The strongest smelling fruit will be the most ripe and ready to eat immediately. If you’d like your fruit to last for a few days, it is best to go with a piece that still smells good, but has a less overwhelming scent.

It’s also worth smelling your vegetables, though this tip does not apply to them all (eggplant is a notable exception). Green leafy vegetables and herbs are particularly fragrant. But even carrots, artichokes and squash can have a distinctive smell. Peppers are my personal favorite.

What are your tips for picking perfect produce?

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6 Responses to “What To Look For When Picking Fruits And Vegetables”

  1. Rachel says:

    My tip? When in doubt, ask! I work in the produce department at a natural foods store/co-op. It’s our job to know when the produce is ripe! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped someone select a perfect mango, avocado, or artichoke.

    This might not work as well at a big box store like Cub Foods or your local Super-Walmart, but if you are shopping at a smaller grocery or farmer’s market, oftentimes the employees are there for more than just show. :)

  2. I definitely do a bad job of checking the fruit thoroughly. Depending on the grower at the farmers market, I will ask them for their recommendation. Another reason I love farmers markets!

  3. E. Foley says:

    When passport melons are in season, I’m always standing next to the box, sniffing a bunch before I pick out the one or two I want. I see other people look at me funny, but when I walk away, they creep up the box and start hesitantly sniffing the melons too. ;-) It totally works.

    (Also, if you smell melons at the grocery store, they hardly smell at all. Once you’ve smelled a freshly picked melon, you won’t go back to the grocery store kind.)

  4. E. Foley says:

    I should mention, the farmer who sells the passport melons is the one who taught me the smelling the stem end trick. If you’re at a farmers market, don’t be afraid to ask the farmers how to pick the best fruit or vegetables from the pile. They’re not going to think you’re pointing out some of their stuff is bad and get insulted. ;-) They want to share what they know about the food and help you buy it… so ask!

  5. Feyyaz says:

    I used to always buy unripe pineapples and avocados. Then I started to “research” (googling…) and bought a dozen of both of ‘em to find out how to identify the freshest. What helped me the most was the third tip: firm, but not hard. Because hard means unripe and squishy definitely means don’t touch me! Additionally, I’d say fragrant aroma can be misleading: I’ve eaten a lot of strawberries and apricots which smelled delicious but were quite unripe! :)

    Shameless self-plug: I’ve written an iPhone App to identify the freshness of the most common fruits, called Fruit Guide (duh!) with some self-made pictures and self-written (experience-based!) descriptions. Check it: Fruit Guide :)

  6. Peggy says:

    What great tips! Definitely going to put them to use at this weekend’s grocery trip =)

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