How to Choose Produce at the Farmers' Market or Grocery Store—Plus, Our Expert Storage Tips
These are the glory days for fruits and vegetables. When summer is at its peak, the farmers' market, farm stands, and grocery stores are stacked high with juicy heirloom tomatoes, just picked corn, and lots of zucchini, patty pan, and other soft-shelled squashes.
But we can't forget about those honeydew, cantaloupes, and watermelons, either. After all, they're the very essence of summer, perhaps even more so than corn on the cob or ripe tomatoes. But how to know which melon to pick? Biggest is not always best when it comes to produce.
Here, we share expert tips on selecting fruits and vegetables and storing them until you're ready to use each. Our advice stretches beyond summer's bounty—we love fresh produce year round and stalk the farmers' market in fall, winter, and spring, too. That's why we're offering expert advice on choosing cold weather vegetables like brassicas, hearty leafy greens like kale and Swiss chard, and trusty root vegetables including carrots, turnips, and parsnips.
Our assistant food editor Riley Wofford is a seasoned produce shopper. To pick the best, get up close and personal, she suggests. She employs her super-high-tech methods—which include spotting, sniffing, and squeezing—to find and keep winner fruits and vegetables to use for our food photo shoots and in recipe development in the test kitchen. Before we get into specific advice for different fruits and vegetables, starting with summer and working through the other seasons, here's one more piece of advice from Riley: Don't forget to bring your own tote bags. That's a farmers' market (or standard grocery store) shopping tip that she and all our food editors endorse.
Berries and Cherries
Start by choosing berries or cherries that are plump, with no blemishes, dark spots, or fuzzy white mold on or between them. Cherries and blueberries aren't fragrant, but raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries should be. Riley says, "Buy a pint that really smells like strawberries."
Take any berries or cherries out of the containers and pick through, discarding anything mushy. Line the containers with paper towels, put the fruit back in, and refrigerate for up to a week. (Raspberries are the most perishable and will last two to three days.) Wash just before serving.
When shopping for tomatoes, whether red, yellow, or green, remember that the best ones are the most vivid version of their color, says Riley. They should have smooth, shiny skin and bright-green tops. Go for surprisingly heavy, medium-firm ones that smell earthy and herbal, just like the vine.
Chilling zaps their flavor and turns them mealy, so do not refrigerate tomatoes. Keep them on the counter out of direct sun for up to five days, ideally in a single layer (for less bruising). "If they're on the vine, leave them that way, and just pick them off as needed," says Riley. Then enjoy them in these tomato salad recipes.
"Look for fresh, uncut silks streaming out of a bright-green husk," says Riley of choosing corn. (Cut silks tell you that slimy rot was trimmed off.) The husks should smell subtly sweet and grassy and cling tightly. Peel them back a tiny bit to check for plump, bright kernels.
Toss ears in the refrigerator with the husks on, and they'll last a week or longer. Riley cuts off the kernels to save a step when cooking later; blanched or raw, they're good to go in an airtight container for about five days.
"Look for symmetry whether the watermelon is round or oval," says Riley of choosing a delicious watermelon. It should have no flat sides or dents, and a dull finish. A shiny rind may mean a melon is over-grown, which waters down the flavor. "And when you lift it, it should feel heavy for its size—the weightier, the juicier." When choosing a cantaloupe or honeydew melon, opt for a rind with a pale-yellow tint (no dark-green areas), evenness, and heft. Lift the stem end to your nose and take a whiff; you should get a hint of flowers.
Whole, uncut melons can sit at room temperature for a week. Cover the exposed flesh of a leftover portion with a silicone bowl cover, or put slices in an airtight container. Cut cantaloupe or honeydew will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to three days; watermelon will last up to five days.
Vibrant colors are key to selecting plums, nectarines, or peaches. When you press gently, they should feel firm, but yield a little. And while plums give off only a mild scent, check nectarines and peaches for a heady aroma: "The best ones smell almost artificially fragrant," says Riley.
Store them at room temperature or, if you're not planning to eat them within a few days, in the refrigerator. That way, they'll taste great for up to five days.
Zucchini and Summer Squashes
Select zucchini and yellow summer squashes with smooth, flawless skin. Size also matters. Opt for small-to-medium specimens over state-fair champs: "Summer squashes can lose flavor when they're overgrown, and the seeds become hard and overwhelming," says Riley.
Go ahead and grab an armful. Whole squashes will be fine for up to two weeks in the crisper drawer. Pop them in a resealable plastic bag, and they’ll last even longer.
Lettuces and Salad Leaves
Look for lettuces without wilted or broken leaves. Depending on how fresh the leaves are to begin with, they can last up to four days. In general, heartier, darker lettuces last longer than paler, tenderer ones. For all greens and lettuces, do not wash them until you're ready to use them.
Wrap arugula tightly in a plastic bag and refrigerate for no more than two days.
Cucumbers and Bell Peppers
Choose leafy greens that look fresh, with no yellowed leaves. Spinach can be kept in the refrigerator for two or three days. Keep kale in the coldest part of your refrigerator: Though it seems like a sturdy vegetable, kale will quickly wilt and turn sharply bitter. To prevent them from wilting, store greens in a plastic bag and close it loosely.
Sort through grapes when you return home from the market and discard any damaged ones, then place the whole bunch in a plastic bag. Store them in the refrigerator for up to three days. To avoid destroying the bloom, rinse them just before using them.
Choose apples that are heavy for their size and feel firm when pressed gently, and always try to avoid bruised fruit. At home, leave apples at room temperature if eating them within a few days; otherwise, store them in a perforated plastic bag in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Always wash apples just before using.
Artichokes and Asparagus
Fresh artichokes can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to five days; wash them just before cooking. Asparagus is best cooked the day it's purchased, but it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to five days. Wrap the bottoms of the stalks in a damp paper towel and place the bunch in a paper bag stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
At the market, look for root vegetables with fresh-looking greens attached, the greens are edible. Keep carrots in a sealed plastic bag, and store them in the vegetable bin. If they become limp, refresh them in a bowl of ice water. Keep parsnips loosely wrapped in the produce drawer of the refrigerator, and use them within two to three weeks. Turnips taste best when they're very fresh, so choose small to medium ones with taut purple or white skin (large mature turnips are more pungent). Refrigerate them in a plastic bag.
With their hardy rinds, citrus fruits keep well. They can be stored at room temperature for several days or in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Larger citrus, such as grapefruits, keeps well at room temperature for about a week. You can also refrigerate it up to two months in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
Onions and Garlic
Choose full, heavy onions with tight, flaky skins. Avoid onions with soft spots or spongy skins. Pick firm, plump garlic bulbs with dry white or purple papery skins. Avoid yellowing skin or bulbs that are shriveled, feel hollow, light, or have brown spots, or those with green sprouts.
Stored in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated place, onions will keep for a month or so. Keep fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Unbroken bulbs can be kept up to eight weeks. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will last for three to 10 days.
Look for potatoes that are firm and free of cracks and bruises. Avoid potatoes that have sprouted "eyes" or have green-tinged skin—both signs of improper storage. Store potatoes in a cool, dry, dark place, not in the refrigerator. Before using them, cut out any green spots and eyes. Waxy potatoes are best used within a week, while starchy varieties last longer.