Picking Produce: How to spot and harvest the best fruits and vegetables
Sick of spoiled fruits and vegetables? Although “Fruits and Veggies Month” is over, we still need to remind ourselves to eat our fruits and vegetables. To get the most nutrients from your produce it is important to be informed and choose wisely when you’re at the supermarket. Here are some tips and techniques to picking and harvesting the freshest and most nutritious vegetables.
- Choose apples that are free of defects, such as bruises, skin breaks and decayed spots.
- Little brown spots on the skin of the apple, does not affect quality.
- Also look for firm (hard) apples since soft apples tend to have a mealy texture and overripe flavor.
- Find firm ones with no sunken, mushy spots, and a waxy rather than a shiny appearance. Shake it—a rattle means the pit has pulled away from the flesh. Not good.
- To ripen, place in a paper bag and store at room temp for 2 to 4 days. Add an apple to the bag to speed things up. Ripe ones can go in the fridge for up to a week.
- Look for bananas with no brown spots or obvious signs of handling damage.
- Bananas that are still basically green will ripen slowly over a period of time.
- Fully ripe bananas will become overripe very quickly.
- Find plump, wrinkle-free grapes that are firmly attached to stems. A silvery white powder (“bloom”) means they’ll stay fresher longer. Green grapes with a yellowish hue are the sweetest.
- Keep unwashed, in a shallow bowl in the fridge, for up to 1 week.
Pure melon flavor is short-lived and best enjoyed fresh. The more mature the melon, the less time it will keep in the refrigerator, though you can try freezing melons to preserve their summery sweetness.
- Harvest most muskmelons when the stem separates easily from the fruit. The skin between the netting turns from green to yellow at full ripeness.
- The belly of a watermelon turns from greenish white to buttery yellow or cream at maturity; also watch for the curly tendrils where the stem meets the melon to turn brown and dry.
- Store melons in a sealed container in the refrigerator, because their musky aroma can affect the flavor of nearby foods.
- Look for vibrant green leaves (easy to pluck), a bit of softness to the fruit, and a sweet fragrance at the stem end. Avoid spongy fruit.
- If it’s unripe, keep it at room temp for 3 to 4 days until it softens and gives off a pineapple aroma. Refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Harvest tomatoes when the fruits are fully colored. At the end of the season, pick remaining mature green or pink tomatoes, put them on a plate or in a paper bag outside the fridge, and let them ripen.
- Pick fully ripe, but firm, tomatoes for juicing or canning.
- Harvest green tomatoes before a killing frost and ripen indoors.
- Store unbruised tomatoes out of the fridge for the best flavor.
When buying lettuce at farmers’ markets, look for vendors who display their lettuce on ice or in coolers.
- If harvesting, try going in the morning to preserve the crispness it acquires overnight.
- When tossing or cooking, immerse lettuce immediately into cold water after cutting; then rinse and refrigerate.
- Cut leaf lettuce when outer leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; cut head lettuce when heads are moderately firm.
Do you crave homegrown produce in the winter? Then grow onions—they store for months when properly handled.
- Leave the dry, papery outer skin on the onion; removal of that skin almost doubles the onion’s rate of decay.
- Cut the onion tops off 1 inch above the bulb no sooner than four hours after harvest.
- Cure bruise-free onions for up to a month in a well-ventilated, dry, shady spot.
- Store onions in mesh rather than plastic bags.
Pay attention to your pods. Fresh, juicy, bright green pods indicate tasty broad, lima, and green shell beans. Snap beans should snap easily and have crisp pods with pliable tips.
- Harvest full-size snap bean pods before the beans begin to bulge.
- Fresh tastes best—harvest beans right before you use them.
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Crucifers need to chill out for the best flavor. Pick them in the morning, cool them down immediately with ice or ice water, and then refrigerate.
- Harvest compact, white, smooth cauliflower heads.
- Select blue-green broccoli heads and harvest them before the small, yellow flower buds open.
- Leave the small leaves on broccoli stems intact—they’re very nutritious.
Here’s a crop that can get better with age. Sugars increase in growing carrot roots for up to four months. This means tasty carrots can be harvested well into autumn in most areas.
- Dig full-size varieties when roots are ½ to 1 inch in diameter.
- Harvest storage carrots just before heavy frosts.
- Avoid selecting cracked or split carrots when buying at farmers’ markets, says Cashel. They often have a bitter rather than sweet flavor.
Harvest sweet corn about three weeks after the first silks appear. You’ll know the corn is ready when the ears fill to the end with kernels and the silks and green husks become dry. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels.
- Snap off sweet corn ears with a quick push, pull, and twist downward.
- For a taste of summer in winter months, you can freeze sweet corn on the cob. Blanch and freeze right after harvest.
Frequent harvesting of cucumbers helps the vines produce new fruit. Why? Because one actively growing cucumber needs 40 percent of the plants photosynthetic output.
- Pick bright green, firm slicing cucumbers when they reach 6 to 9 inches long.
- Detach cucumbers from the vine with a quick, upward snap.
- Quickly remove and compost any yellow, puffy, overripe fruit.
Regular harvesting is vital because peas left too long on the vine aren’t as sweet and can impair the growth of immature pods. Sugar snap peas and traditional shelling peas should be fully formed but not overly large.
- Pick bright green, mature peas daily.
- Be gentle when pulling beans and peas from the vine—rough picking can jostle flowers off and damage vegetation. Some gardeners even snip peas off with pruners or small scissors.
Most peppers start out green and turn different colors as they mature. Harvest sweet peppers, such as bell peppers, and hot peppers at the degree of color you desire. And take care when picking—pepper plants damage easily.
- Pick pimiento peppers when they’re fully red.
- Harvest hot Hungarian wax and sweet banana peppers when fully yellow, turning red, or fully red—depending on preferred hotness.
If you want to store potatoes, be sure to dig them up before frost.
- Potatoes should be stored at 60° to 75°F and 80 to 90 percent relative humidity for one to two weeks.
- Don’t wash potatoes you want to store—simply brush off the soil after it dries.
- Avoid exposing potatoes to light, which makes the tubers turn green and produce dangerous alkaloids.
Baby spinach is all the rage for a reason—the smaller leaves maximize flavor.
- Cut, don’t pull, spinach to ensure multiple harvests.
Summer squash are notoriously prolific producers. Unless you want squash as big (and tasty) as baseball bats, you should pick them frequently.
- Small zucchini and yellow squash (6 to 10 inches long) and scalloped squash (3 to 6 inches in diameter) have the best flavor.
- Tasty fruits have tender rinds (they should puncture easily with a fingernail) and soft seeds.
To find out more information about “More Matters” and proper serving sizes, check out fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org or choosemyplate.gov.
Matt Ernst. “Picking At The Peak.” Harvesting Vegetables at the Peak of Freshness: Organic Gardening. Rodale, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/picking-peak?page=0,1>.
Matt Kadey, R.D. “How to Pick the Best Produce.” Men’s Health. Rodale, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/how_to_pick_the_best_produce/index.php>.