The Produce Worker's Guide to Choosing Fruits and Vegetables
We've had a few requests lately from readers who want to know more about how to get the most out of their fruits and vegetables. Keeping your produce fresh begins at the store. As a former produce stocker, I can tell you that most grocery stores use a variety of tricks to keep profit margins high and the waste to a minimum. If you know what to look for, then you can be sure to pick fruits and veggies that will have a longer shelf life at home.
I put together a list of 25 commonly purchased grocery items and provided some basic purchasing tips based on my experience working in the produce department. (See also: Fresh Fruits and Vegetables by the Month)
Choosing that perfect avocado can be tricky. Because avocados will only ripen after they are picked, it's really hit or miss in terms of what shape they are in by the time they reach their destination. You can tell if an avo is ripe by the color and how firm it is. If it is bright green and hard, it won't be ready for a few days at least. A ripe avocado will be slightly soft and have a dark green skin, but it shouldn't be too soft. If push your finger into the skin and feel a "space" between the skin and flesh, it is past its prime. If you can't find a ripe avocado at the store, you can always speed up the ripening process by placing it in a brown paper bag, which helps trap the natural ethylene gas that causes many fruits to ripen. Placing an apple or banana in the bag also helps.
Finding ripe bananas is similar to hunting for ready-to-eat avocados — they are grown in tropical regions, picked early, and shipped to far away places. Customers would often pass up bananas with a few brown spots because they thought they were "overripe." I would always peel one and let the customer taste, and most people would agree that this is when the banana is at its best. Lastly, from a strictly environmental perspective, you don't have to put your bananas in a plastic bag to bring them to the checkout (same for avocados). I've never understood this phenomenon, since this is one of the only fruits that has an inedible skin. Just be mindful next time you are at the store, and ask yourself, "Do I really need a bag for this?"
In the summer, many stores will display large bunches of basil in a bucket of water, which tends to look nice for about 24 hours. Make sure you are picking the healthiest bunch; the leaves shouldn't be droopy or shriveled, and they should have a strong aroma. If the basil is bagged, make sure there aren't any black leaves inside. A few spots are okay, but look for the bunch with the greenest leaves. Like most produce, the older items are rotated to the front when the display is restocked, so you may have to dig around a little. If you still can't find healthy-looking basil, ask someone in the department to check in the back. Basil is one of those items that is delivered often, but the new batch may not be on the floor yet.
Beets, turnips, parsnips, celery root, and other root veggies should never be soft. If your store displays them in a cooler that is too cold or wet, they will tend to get soft faster. Make sure they are hard and colorful, particularly if you plan on making a fresh beet salad or juice. It isn't as much of an issue if you plan to cook root veggies.
Mold is the biggest issue with berries, particularly the more delicate ones, such as raspberries and blackberries. In the summer, try to buy local berries sold in paper pints. Pick up the pint to check for any wet spots on the bottom, and try to gently shake the berries around to see if there's any hidden mold or broken berries. Mold spreads quickly once it is in the package, particularly plastic packaging. But even in the package, you can often detect bad berries by the smell. It's generally better to buy berries when they are in season since they will have more flavor and cost significantly less. Because they are so delicate and there's a lot of loss, produce departments have to mark up out-of-season berries.
There is some contention over whether it is best to buy crowns or bunches. Crowns tend to be more expensive, but bunches are sold by weight, and if you add the weight of the stalk, it can be just as costly. It really depends on whether or not you will use the stalks. In any case, you want to make sure that the crowns have a dark green hue. If they look pale or have yellow spots, they are on their way out. You can also squeeze the tops to make sure the broccoli is firm. The same goes for cauliflower. Look for a firm head with little to no brown spots.
If your store offers bulk carrots, these are your best choice for quality, and they are much cheaper. As a general rule, bagged items have traveled many miles and may have begun to break down. Buying local will guarantee that you are getting the crispest carrots, but if local carrots aren't available, find out the source of the other options (most of the time you can find this information on the bag or ask an employee). Usually, you can find carrots that haven't traveled too far. Carrots should be bright in color and look "alive." Avoid anything that looks limp, dry, dark, or moldy (similar to other root veggies).
A good rule of thumb for citrus is that most varieties will not ripen after they are picked. So it is best to buy citrus that is ripe but not rotting. Look for a firm fruit with vibrant colors. Avoid anything that is bruised, wrinkled, or lacking in color.
Corn will last longer if you buy it with the husk and don't shuck it until you are ready to cook it. The husk keeps the corn moist and fresh. Look for a thick, bright-green husk, and don't buy anything that has dry ends or has too many brown spots. Even if it looks healthy, bugs can still be an issue (particularly with organic corn). Before you buy, peel back the husk without taking too much off, and make sure there aren't any places where the corn is pale, dry, or nibbled on. You can also tell which ears are healthy by weight. The heavier the ear, the more moisture it has retained.
Cukes should be firm and dark green in color. Pickling cucumbers tend to be lighter in color, but you can always check to see if there are any soft or dark spots. I love Italian cucumbers — the long, slender ones — but they don't last as long and are typically sold in plastic wrap, which holds in the moisture and causes more breakdown. For any type of cuke, try to find ones that are not packaged.
Eggplant should be dark purple and firm, though there are many eggplant varieties that have different shapes and colors. All eggplant varieties should have skin that is free of wrinkles and soft spots. Only buy eggplant if you plan to use it soon, since it doesn't store very well. Smaller varieties are less bitter.
While figs may not be as common as other fruits such as peaches or apricots, they all share the same qualities when they are ripe. Fresh figs are harder to find than dried ones, but they are a real treat if you can buy them when they are ripe. A ripe fig should have the same soft texture as a ripe peach, but it shouldn't be too soft. The skin should be slightly wrinkled but not shriveled. The color depends on the variety, but the most common variety sold in stores is the Brown Turkish Fig, which should have a deep brown color when ripe. But if you ever have the opportunity to eat a fig right of the tree, this is the best way to experience a fresh fig.
You should be able to break a fresh green bean in half without any effort, and it should have a snap to it. Buy green beans in bulk if you can, and put them in paper bags if your store offers them (the paper might absorb some of the moisture, but plastic encourages mold). Like berries, green beans tend to mold quickly, so look for the white furry stuff, especially if the beans are pre-packaged. Avoid anything that looks dark or mushy; a few spots are okay, but don't buy spotty, pale, or limp beans (same goes for snap peas).
A healthy bunch of kale has a rich color, and the leaves won't droop when you hold the bunch upright. This is true for other leafy greens, such as collards and chard. If you gently squeeze the leaves, they should make a squeaky sound and bounce back immediately. Think about a house plant that hasn't been watered in a while — don't buy any leafy green that looks like a sad or dying plant.
You can always tell if a head of lettuce is fresh by looking at the bottom where it was cut from the ground. If it is brown and dried out, it hasn't retained any water during its trip from the farm to the grocery shelves. Working in produce in the winter meant a lot more prep work, since we received lettuce from the West coast — a long distance from Vermont. To revive lettuce, we would trim off the bottom of the heads and soak them it in a sink full of water, which you could do at home, but it is better to pick out the healthiest lettuce at store. Look for lettuce that is crisp, vibrant, and that doesn't have wilted leaves, holes, or dark mushy spots. Avoid pre-packaged lettuce and buy mixed greens in bulk when available. Of course, local is always the best choice when it is in season.
To halve or not to halve. Forgive the hackneyed cliche, but this was always a debate in the produce department. From my experience, dividing and shrink-wrapping melons was an easy way to help customers see if the fruit was ripe. If a cantaloupe, for instance, had a good color, not too pale but not too dark, and didn't have any dark or pulpy spots, it was ready to eat. Avoid anything that looks too watery or that has a strong musky odor. For an uncut melon, smell the outside, and if you can tell what the fruit is with your eyes closed, it's ripe (this is true for pineapples too).
Watermelons are in a slightly different category because they don't smell as strongly, and tapping to see if they sound hollow has never really worked for me. Avoid watermelons that have funky shapes, major discoloration, or anything that feels too light for its size. Heavier watermelons have more water inside and will be juicier. If you aren't sure, you can always compare it to the other ones around the same size and pick the heaviest one. Last word on melons — be adventurous. There are many types of melons out there, and you never know if one of them might be your new favorite.
Picking out mushrooms that aren't molded can get dicey, since by definition, they are mold. One of my co-workers grew mushrooms for many years, and he said the best way to tell if a shroom is funky is the smell. Don't buy mushrooms if they smell fishy (not suspicious, but literally like fish). Color and texture are also good indicators. Lots of dark spots, slimy surfaces, and mushrooms that are too spongy are not good signs.
As with other alliums, such as garlic and shallots, sprouting is a sign that the onion is beginning to break down, but you can always check for wet or dark spots. Although onions have a strong odor to begin with, if the odor is overwhelming, it's probably bad. Look for fruit flies around the bin at the store, and always ask if there are fresher onions in the back since many root veggies are lower on the priority list in terms of restocking.
Like bananas, pears are actually better if they have brown spots on them. You don't want them to fall apart in your hands, but they should be relatively soft and aromatic. You can always request to taste one if there are many in the bunch that look too ripe. I've found that most people who work in produce are very friendly and generous with sampling, but as a rule, the brown spots on the skin are more of an indication of ripeness than rotting fruit.
Smooth skin usually means a healthy pepper; however, wrinkles on jalapenos are okay, but be wary, because this often means that they are extra hot! All peppers should be firm and free of holes or dark spots, and they shouldn't feel like a rubber when you gently squeeze them.
You'll often find that potatoes are sold in plastic bags, which is the worst possible way to store potatoes. I'm assuming this is done so that customers can see the condition of the potatoes, but try to buy potatoes in bulk or sold in paper bags. Again, sprouts and spots are usually good indicators of a bad potato, but wrinkled skin is another one, along with soft flesh. Sometimes you can pick off the sprouts and they are still fine, but always check for green potatoes by scraping away a little of the skin. There's still a debate over how toxic green potatoes really are, but it's definitely a sign that the root has begun to break down.
If the radishes are sold with the tops, you can tell how fresh they are by the health of the greens. Yellow or wilted leaves are a sign that the radish has been on the shelf for a while; however, always check the actual root. If it is still firm, then it is still fresh.
Tomatoes have three simple fresh indicators: Color, texture, and fruit flies. Avoid pale tomatoes (heirlooms are exceptions to this rule) and any tomato that has been damaged. Once the skin is broken, they will break down much more quickly. When buying packaged cherry tomatoes, pick up the package. If you see fruit flies buzzing in all directions, put it back. If you aren't sure how to tell if an heirloom is ripe, just ask someone. For the most part, a tomato is ripe when it is soft enough to squeeze without breaking the skin.
Winter squash will last for quite some time after harvest if stored properly. Whether it's butternut, acorn, or delicata, look for the squash that is heavy for its size (like watermelons), and don't buy winter squash if it is soft or if the rind is shriveled or dark in places.
Zucchini (and Summer Squash)
Zucchini and summer squash are very similar, and you will often find them displayed near one another. Like most items on this list, avoid anything with mushy brown spots or that is too pale. Depending on the variety, the color should be bright and consistent. You can tell by the ends as well. Don't buy anything that has dry or squishy tips. The skin should also have a nice sheen and rubbery texture.
From avocados to zucchini, you can always rely on color, texture, and size to help ensure freshness and quality when buying produce. Just remember three basic rules to guide you along the way: Ask questions, buy in season and local if possible, and don't be afraid to handle the goods. As long as you are gentle and not causing more damage, you have every right to inspect your produce before you buy it.