One of the most frustrating things in the world has to be biting into a good-looking peach only to find that it is mealy on the inside. It’s the ultimate letdown. The same can be said for dry oranges, soft cherries, funky apples and I could go on. Crappy fruit is one of the downsides of our modern food distribution system. It’s great to have raspberries available in February, but a total bummer when they end up moldy.
There are a few important reasons to spend time looking for perfectly ripe produce:
1. Obviously, and most importantly, ripe fruits and vegetables are more delicious! Ripe produce has time to naturally develop its full flavor potential.
2. Ripe produce is actually significantly more nutritious. Plants develop phytonutrients, such as antioxidants and other good stuff, over the course of their growing cycles. Fully ripe produce has the maximum amount of phytonutrients. On the other hand, these nutrients have a shelf-life and start to deteriorate over time – meaning old or over-ripe is also not as healthy.
3. Given our food distribution system and the long trips from farm to supermarket, plants are often picked under-ripe when they will best survive transport. This produce is then artificially ripened using ethylene gas before being placed on the grocery store shelves (all the more reason to eat local when possible!). This artificial process does not allow the proper development of phytonutrients or flavor. This process may give oranges their bright color, but it does not actually change the fruit on the inside.
I’ve always been a stickler for fresh food, but after reading Jo Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side, I’m even more committed. The rate at which these phytonutrients breakdown is staggering, so it’s important to eat your produce at the height of ripeness. Luckily there are some good ways to work the system and make sure you’re buying the ripest fruit so you get the most flavor and nutrition from your food.
Here are my pointers for finding the freshest fruit –
1. Follow your nose – Every fruit has a scent, which intensifies as it ripens. Take the time to pick each piece up and really smell it before placing it in your bag. Even if your fruit has been artificially ripened it hasn’t been artificially aromatized (new word!). Sniff, sniff, sniff.
2. Check the stems – Stems are often more honest about age than the fruit itself. Always look for green stems that are still bendy and avoid stems that look brown, dried, and brittle. This is particularly important for cherries and grapes.
3. Bigger is often better – Fruit ripens as it grows, so the largest fruit on the tree is often the ripest as well. This is particularly true for citrus fruits, which are nearly always artificially ripened to give them a uniform orange color. Side note, heavier is also better because it means juicier. Make sure all big fruits (melons, mangoes, pineapples, grapefruits etc.) feel heavy for their size. Light = dried out.
4. Buy organic – I know I’m a broken record given the topic of my last Beetroot, but organic guidelines don’t allow for artificial ripening. This helps you avoid chemicals, as well as ensuring that your fruit is fresher and naturally riper than most conventional options.
5. Excess juice means over-ripe – Especially when buying berries, avoid containers with squished fruit or excess liquid in the bottom. The same is true for stone fruits that have any leaking cracks or blemishes.
6. Use common sense – Always avoid grapes that have wrinkled, apples that feel soft, or oranges that look dried out. And try to learn a few tricks of the trade, for example a fully ripe lime is actually yellowish/green. The dark green limes are under-ripe and therefor not as juicy or nutritious.
Jo Robinson includes a great list in her book outlining which fruits ripen after being picked and which don’t. This will help you in the produce isle for sure — don’t buy that pineapple with dreams that it is going to ripen on the kitchen counter! Hopefully the tips above, the list below, and some trial and error will help you find the tastiest fruit available and maximize your nutritional intake. Happy hunting!
Fruits that do not ripen after being picked: citrus fruits, berries, cherries, grapes, pineapples, and pomegranates
Fruits that do ripen after being picked: apples, apricots, bananas, guavas, kiwis, mangoes, melons, nectarines, peaches, pears, and plums