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Tips for Determining Produce Quality


Chris Amirault
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I started a "produce fail" topic over here where we can rant about lousy industrial fruits and vegetables. That topic -- and some particularly lousy stone fruit and artichokes -- got me thinking about the criteria I use for purchasing such items at the store. There's the basics (appropriate color, texture, smell), but I've got a few more specific approaches than that. In addition, as indicated above, I also need some from you!

I'll bet that we could accumulate a great list here of solid indicators to determine produce quality. So if you have tips, or resources, share 'em here.

I'll start with a couple:

Twist the top of a pineapple. If it turns easily and gives off a sweet, pineapple-y scent, grab it.

When you squeeze an onion, squeeze it on the poles. If it's rotting on the interior, it'll be squishy there but not necessarily around the equator.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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A few tips we give our students:

  • If you want to know which fruit is likely to be good, stand in the middle of the produce section and take a deep breath. Buy whatever you can smell.
  • When produce is cheap, that almost always means it's in season.
  • Don't buy citrus by color, because packers and producers often dye it. Buy by weight and squeezability.

Dave Scantland
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Eat more chicken skin.

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Artichokes - squeeze and if they squeak, they're good to go.

But you should also be able to tell freshness/ripeness/rotting-ness by appearance and how the fruit feels in your hand (i.e. heavy in the hand is generally a good thing), along with a general knowledge of seasonality for the region of the world that the produce is coming from.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Don't buy thin asparagus. The thin stuff is the first and the last of the growth and much stringier and less flavorful than the thick spears.

I think part of this comes down to personal preference, because I happen to love the pencil thin asparagus much more than the thicker, second growth stalks.

With any asparagus though, make sure it is standing in CLEAN water, and that there is no sign of decay on the heads. Cloudy water and soft heads are a good sign of old asparagus.

For oranges, I agree that going with the condition of the skin, and the weight in the hand are good indicators, though sometimes I can't help judging by the colour. It's never the only consideration though.

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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Mangos. They are best if you can easily push the remaining stem off with your thumb and smell mango.

With the Ataulfo (or Phillipine) mango, I always look for ones that have a few black spots on the skin, and the skin is slightly wrinkled. That means its going to be very sweet.

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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Don't buy thin asparagus. The thin stuff is the first and the last of the growth and much stringier and less flavorful than the thick spears.

I'm with Shamanjoe. My DW and I vastly prefer thin asparagas - but it does need to be fresh.

Porthos Potwatcher
The Once and Future Cook

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Smell the peaches you are buying - they should have a very pronounced "peachy" smell. If this is absent or very faint, the fruit will not be ripe. And, don't believe the vendor who says - let them sit on the counter for a few days to ripen - they don't ripen, they just get soft and mealy. Yuck.

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Don't buy thin asparagus. The thin stuff is the first and the last of the growth and much stringier and less flavorful than the thick spears.

I'm with Shamanjoe. My DW and I vastly prefer thin asparagas - but it does need to be fresh.

I'm curious: what do you like about it? To me it's just a mass of stringy fiber. It's like eating dental floss.

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Apples, cherries, grapes, cucumbers, bell peppers, potatoes, zucchini and eggplant should be firm.

Although it's ideal to buy fragrant, ripe stone fruits, it's rare for me to find those retail. I generally buy them hard and try to find nice, unblemished ones. They usually ripen well on the counter. A lot of things do: avocados, bananas, melons even tomatoes ripen nicely. Sometimes you get a specimen that's so bad it rots before it ripens, though.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Don't buy thin asparagus. The thin stuff is the first and the last of the growth and much stringier and less flavorful than the thick spears.

I'm with Shamanjoe. My DW and I vastly prefer thin asparagas - but it does need to be fresh.

Agreed! I like the thin stuff. For one thing, it's more tender so you don't generally have to do any peeling.

Notes from the underbelly

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Russ Parsons' How to Pick a Peach is a great resource.

In many cases, especially with fruits, I'll use fragrance as a tie breaker. If there are two varieties of plums that look good, I'll let my nose decide. Probably not infallible, but it beats guessing.

Paul, you took the words right out of my mouth. I was thinking of the Parsons book as soon as ElsieD mentioned peaches. Its a wonderful resource for choosing a whole variety of fruits and vegetables.

JAZ,

I like the smaller asparagus because they tend to be much more tender and I think they taste more like asparagus. They also work well with my preferred cooking method. I toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss them on the grill until they start to shrivel up a bit. They get a wonderful smokey taste in addition to the asparagus flavour. I think if I were using them in some other manner, I might prefer the larger size as well, but I rarely cook asparagus anywhere but on the grill.

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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I read somewhere that asparagus that has curled at the top has not been adequately hydrated, and that you should never buy them. True?

Firmness is tricky with citrus. I buy a lot of lemons and limes, and if they are too firm it can be a sign that the skin is very thick, meaning that you're buying more pith than pulp. As Mitch says, you gotta think about heft, too.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Squeeze that garlic--it should be hard. Smell the peaches and cantaloupes--if you can't smell them, they will never be good. Look at the stem end of your cantaloupe--it should have a bowl shaped depression where the stem was attached. If there is still a bit of stem, it won't ripen.

Pineapples should smell good, but watch out for brown soft spots--sometimes those pineapples will taste fermented.

Broccoli heads should be tight and firm--look at the cut end, too. If it is dry, the broccoli is old. Cabbage also should be firm and tight.

I have found that you just have to take your chances with watermelons--I don't think there is really any way to know.

sparrowgrass
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I read somewhere that asparagus that has curled at the top has not been adequately hydrated, and that you should never buy them. True?

It was either Sara Moulton or St. Julia who recommended buying asparagus with tight tops (which would mean stay away from curled tops).

If you're supposed to stay away from thin spears what about "pencil aparagus" which is intentionally thin?

Cantaloupes have been a dilemma these past couple of years. My mom swears that 30 years ago you used to be able to pick one up and shake it so you could hear the inside seed "goop" sloshing around. Sloshing was good because it meant full innards which meant ripeness. Now cantaloupes are bred so the innards are dry and no longer goopy. Today she just presses on the stem end to find whether it's soft there (soft means ripe to her). I know the skin (under the netting pattern) should look tannish, not green. Plus it should also have a nice smell to it. No smell, not ripe.

She couldn't select a ripe watermelon if her life depended on it. I think she said it's been at least five years since she found a good one.

So how do you tell if a watermelon is ripe?

 

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Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

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Watermelon is ripe when the little pig tail thing on the end is brown. Unfortunately, this is only seen at pick your own, not retail. The other I have heard is look at the side where it sat on the ground. It should by tan or yellow not white.

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When I was a teenager I was trained to be an assistant produce manager because the A-guy had to have a back operation. We were very frugal and tossed out as little as possible. If half of a product was bad, we sold the good part packed in film. I quickly learned what was good and what was bad (or not AS good).

Thin asparagus has the same thickness "skin" as thick, so one is getting ripped off buying the thin, unless one accepts cooking it longer to tenderize it (and thus lose flavor). Much better to peel the thick and enjoy the not-overcooked flavor.

No physical abuse is necessary for pineapples; simply smell the base for the desired pineapple smell.

Cantaloupes, in addition to smelling good, should "give" a little at the stem end when gently pressed by a thumb.

Asparagus with bent tips (curled?) simply encountered an obstruction while pushing up through the soil. If the tips are truly dried, don't buy.

With citrus, garlic, onions, cabbage, sweet potatoes and others, go for the ones with high density: lots of weight for the size. Use the store scale.

Much of the rot in onions (when present) is undetectable. Unless it's so bad that one can smell it.

If you do get some bad stuff you refuse to accept (once you got it home and cut it), return it with an indignant air. Let those guys at the store know they are falling down on the job. If they sold it knowing it was bad, don't go back.

Ray

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Regarding asparagus' bent tips, here's what Harold McGee says:

Green asparagus spears, cut down just hours after they’ve hit daylight and turned color, are the most lively of all our vegetables, furiously turning the sugars absorbed from their roots into energy and new tissues.

The harvest doesn’t stop them. Even cut off from their roots, the asparagus spears keep growing at the tip. If they’re stored lying down, the tips rise away from the pull of gravity, and can bend 60 degrees or more from the stalk before they run out of energy.

This seems to imply that the bent tips only indicate the orientation of the asparagus during storage. I believe Alton Brown agrees with this. See "The Age Of Asparagus," S14E03. Of course, it's possible that asparagus stored on its side has been deprived of water, but it's not water deprivation that causes the curved tips.

Edited by emannths (log)
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When I lived in France, the good market sellers for cantaloupe would often search for the ripest ones to sell me by gently pushing the opposite end of the the stem with both thumbs. It should not be squishy, but it also shouldn't be rock hard. Squishy ones were discounted, but just a little soft 'give' was perfect.

Also look for yellow colored cantaloupes and ones that smell sweet. If you have all three in line, it will be good.

If they are all firm at then end and you can't smell them, go for the yellow ones.

k.

I like to say things and eat stuff.

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Watermelon is ripe when the little pig tail thing on the end is brown. Unfortunately, this is only seen at pick your own, not retail. The other I have heard is look at the side where it sat on the ground. It should by tan or yellow not white.

The spot on the watermelon should be yellow like Doodad says. In addition to that little sign, I've almost always had good luck with the tapping method. If it feels heavy for its size, and sounds nice and hollow, it's usually ripe.

As far as cantaloupe, make sure the netting is raised. If its flat or thinning, it usually isn't as ripe. And ditto on the smell. Just remember to smell the blossom end.

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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