Sometimes what makes a meal really taste good is that you've used the best, freshest ingredients you can find. I've gone to the store and seen people just pick up any tomato, zucchini, peach, basket of strawberries or bunch of green beans without even looking at them – they just grab and go, like it's a can of corn on a shelf. Well, I can tell you that whatever they are cooking – it could taste better, if only they spent a few seconds actually picking out the best of what's there.
Now of course I'm going to tell you that you'll also probably get a better flavor if what you're buying is farm fresh, organic and/or an heirloom variety. As you know a lot of produce is picked before it actually ripens, it's boxed up, trucked across country and then either treated with chemicals to “ripen” them or just set out to “ripen” in the store. In this case whatever you're buying is not really ripe, but you still want to spend some time to make sure that it's as close a “simulation” of ripe as you can get and you certainly don't want to buy something that is over-ripe, or on it's way to rotting.
If you grow your own produce, you probably already have an idea of what perfectly ripe is – usually it's when you go to pick something like a tomato or a peach and it comes off of the plant when you just barely tug on it. If you're buying from a farmer or farmer's market – I would hope that they've picked their products at the height of ripeness too.
When looking for the “best”, basically you're looking for the same thing regardless of what ever it is you're looking for. You want the brightest color, the most firm, tight skin, the least blemishes - not dents/scratches, but discolorations, soft spots, etc. - and depending on the product, the best smell.
Below are some things to look for in specific fruits and vegetables:
Apples: Depending on the variety, most apples should be shiny. Look for fruit with a bright color, tight skin, it should be firm/hard when squeezed lightly – also depending on the variety it should have a slightly sweet “apple-y” smell as well. Avoid apples with dark/soft spots, wrinkly skin or that are slightly soft when squeezed.
Artichokes: Artichokes should be completely green, avoid if they have a purple tint to them or if they have buds/flowers. They should feel heavy for their size and have few bruises, squeeze them slightly and you should hear a “squeaking” sound – if you don't hear the squeak, it's not fresh.
Bananas: Unless you've grown them yourself, I think all bananas in the US are either chemically or store ripened. Now what some people consider ripe in a banana is under/over ripe to others – I myself prefer them a little on the green side, but I can still enjoy them when they've got brown spots on them. Depending on how many bananas you're buying it's best to buy them when the stems are still a little green, that way the bunch will last longer. Avoid bananas that already have brown spots or are soft to the touch.
Bing Cherries: Cherries should be shiny, deep purple/red in color, have tight skin and be firm to the touch. Avoid soft cherries and cherries with blemishes.
Blueberries: Blueberries are almost always already boxed in a clear plastic container so you don't get to do a whole lot of choosing. Look for containers with berries that are as blue/purple as possible – avoid berries that have green or brown spots.
Broccoli: Look for broccoli that has a good green color and tight, curled up “flowers” on the florets. Broccoli stalks should be hard when squeezed. Avoid broccoli where the “flowers” have started to open, and are either yellow or brown in color.
Brussels Sprouts: Brussels sprouts should also be firm, tightly closed and bright green in color. I think the ones that have the best flavor are also between 1 ½” to 2” in diameter. Avoid Brussels Sprouts where the leaves have started to pull away, that are soft, and are either yellow or brown.
Cabbage: Choose a good solid head, light green in color with firm skin on the outside.
Cantaloupe: When choosing a cantaloupe or really any melon, “thunk” it with you middle finger, it should sound hollow. Also, if you smell the vine end of the cantaloupe it should smell like a cantaloupe and slightly sweet – if there's no scent, it's not ripe. If it's soft – it's over-ripe.
Cauliflower: Look for cauliflower that has a over-all cream color and that is solid when squeezed. Avoid cauliflower where the florets are green or brown tinted – they are either under or over ripe.
Celery: Celery stalks should be firm and a medium green color. Avoid celery that is a watery green or dark green color. Obviously if it's “limp” it's starting to rot.
Corn: When picking out corn on the cob, you want the husks to be fairly tightly attached to the cob, a medium green color and firm when squeezed. You'll need to pull the top part of the husk down a little bit (about 1 1/2” - 2”) and look at the corn kernels – they should be evenly & tightly spaced, evenly colored and “plump” looking. Avoid corn where the kernels are wrinkly or where there are wide spaces & gaps between kernels.
Cucumbers: Cucumbers should be evenly colored, medium to medium-dark green and firm to the touch. Avoid cucumbers with soft/white spots.
Green Beans: Green or string beans should be a light green color and the skin should be tight. Avoid beans that are “limp”, have wrinkly skin and that have yellow or brown blemishes/spots.
Honeydew: As with cantaloupe, honeydews should be “thunked” with your middle finger and sound hollow. The vine end should smell sweet. They should be a uniform cream color – avoid if they have too much green color in them.
Kale: Kale should be medium green in color – avoid bunches that are limp or have brown/yellow spots.
Lettuces: Pretty much the same as kale – the color will depend on the type of lettuce, just make sure that the head is a consistent color and the leaves are not limp. If it's a solid head like iceberg – the head should be solid and firm when squeezed.
Mushrooms: Avoid mushroom with brown or soft spots.
Onions: Should be consistent color, solid/firm when squeezed. Avoid soft onions.
Oranges: Should have a slightly wrinkly skin, the skin should give a little when squeezed, the overall color should be consistent and it should feel a little heavy for the size. Avoid oranges that still have a stem or leaves on them – they are not ripe.
Peaches: Should be slightly soft when squeezed – I mean they should just barely give, but they shouldn't be too soft nor should they be as hard as a rock. The stem end of the peach should smell like a peach and slightly sweet.
Pears: Similar to picking out apples – tight skin and firm when squeezed, avoid pears with dark spots, wrinkly skin and that are slightly soft when squeezed.
Peppers: Avoid peppers with soft/brown spots – skin should be tight and shiny – color and shape should be consistent.
Pineapples: When picking out a pineapple, you want to very gently pull/tug on an inner leaf at the top of the pineapple. It should come out easily, the pineapple should be firm but not hard, nor should it be soft. Avoid pineapples that are too yellow or too green at the bottom.
Pomegranate: Pomegranates should feel heavy for the size and be a deep or bright red color. The skin should be tight and without cracks or bruises.
Potatoes: Potatoes should have tight, smooth skin, very few dimples and should be firm when squeezed – avoid potatoes that have eyes, deep “dimples”, have a green tint or white spots.
Plums: Should have tight skin, be evenly colored and should give just a little bit when squeezed – avoid hard or soft plums.
Strawberries: Strawberries should be a bright red color – the tops/shoulders can be a little yellow/green but avoid strawberries where the green color goes beyond the very top. The skin should be tight and the fruit should be firm. Avoid strawberries that are soft or have white spots.
Sweet Potatoes/Yams: Overall coloration should be consistent, the skin should be smooth, there should be no eyes, and only a few shallow dimples. They should be firm when squeezed. Avoid yams that have white spots.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes should have a bright red coloring, tight/smooth skin and should give slightly when squeezed. Avoid tomatoes with green near the stem, or that are too hard or too soft.
Watermelon: Watermelons should feel heavy for their size – they should sound hollow when “thunked” with your middle finger.
Yellow Squash: Should have a consistent yellow color, with few blemishes. They should feel firm when squeezed.
Zucchini: Should have a consistent deep green color, and no soft spots.
Good luck picking out the “best” fruits and vegetables you can find. I'm sure that you'll find spending just a little time picking out your produce that you'll make a tastier meal.
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