I spent 26 years at my family’s farm marketing selling produce from our own farm. While our farm has currently moved away from fruits and vegetables to cash crops, I still appreciate the desire to find the best tasting produce. While picking out some items is easier (a cucumber is a cucumber; right?), other items can be a bit trickier (uh, how do I even know if that watermelon is ripe?). The success of our farm market was our ability to provide great tasting produce at a decent price. No doubt as a farmer’s daughter, I’ve eaten more than my fair share of fresh, amazing produce and also helped customers pick out the best tasting fruits and vegetables.
I’ve seen people employ all sorts of ridiculous so-called “expert tips” to try and pick out the right produce. I’ll never forget the lady that insisted she could tell if a watermelon was good by placing a piece of straw on top of it and watching which way it slid off. Because those gimmicks tended to annoy me, I figure I’ll share some worthwhile tips with my readers. Getting great tasting produce isn’t hard, even at the grocery store, as long as you know what actually makes a difference.
If you’re interested in finding some of the best tasting produce, here’s what you need to know.
Buy Produce When It’s In Season
We’ve been spoiled, because we literally can find any type of food at the grocery store all year around. Even in the dead of winter, when there is 6 feet of snow on the ground, I can head to the grocery store and purchase a whole array of fresh fruits and vegetables that, quite frankly, I shouldn’t be able to eat.
But that convenience can come at a price.
Of course, when produce has to be shipped across the country, it has to be harvested early enough to account for all of that travel time. Quite frankly, much of the produce picked in one state and shipped to another was picked before it was ripe. It isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the reality of the business. While I appreciate having strawberries in December, we should also acknowledge that they probably won’t completely match up with fresh strawberries that were picked at the peak of ripeness on the plant. So, if you’re looking for the best tasting produce, find some that was left on the plant until it was ripe and ready to eat.
I’ll continue to eat fruit and vegetables from the grocery store out of season, because they’re still healthy and taste good. But if a certain fruit or vegetables is in season, I try to purchase that produce from a local farm that can allow the produce to ripen on the plant and then pick it. Otherwise, some grocery stores will actually carry local produce when it is in season, so be sure to check!
Like most foods, produce is going to taste better when it’s fresh.
Aside from picking produce that is allowed to ripen on the plant, this is probably the biggest difference out there. There were so many times that people would stop at our stand and comment that our tomatoes tasted so much better than the tomatoes they bought at a large grocery store. Yes, we had a few tricks for growing such great tomatoes, but the real difference was that we picked our produce when it ripened on the plant and sold it fresh.
Let’s qualify what we mean by “fresh.” Certainly, if you can walk into your own garden, pick some vegetables and eat them on the spot, they will be at the height of freshness! But we don’t need to be quite that picky. Rather, look for produce that was picked shortly before you purchase it, which might mean as long as 3-4 days. Freshness also varies by the food. Tomatoes should probably be eaten within a few days, but we usually wait for peaches to get soft before eating. That’s okay!
Avoid eating produce that’s been laying out for a couple weeks at a time, especially if it has started to rot. If you really want to get something fresh, many farms allow people to pick their own produce. Provided that you know what to look for, that can be an awesome option.
Find Farm Markets and Roadside Stands Selling Their Own Produce
Often, people don’t completely appreciate how important genetics are in agriculture. This is another perfect example. As I mentioned, we’re able to keep a steady supply of fresh produce year round because it is grown in warmer regions and shipped to colder regions. That can make a difference when it comes to taste, but also when it comes down to the variety of the produce that was planted.
The Rutgers Scarlet strawberry is the perfect example. After 10 years of breeding, this variety of strawberry was bred specifically to pick and eat. Unlike varieties grown in states like California, it isn’t hardy enough to travel long distances. We also grew varieties of tomatoes that had the same qualities. They’re considered “fresh market” varieties because that’s what they were bred for – harvesting when ripe and selling shortly thereafter.
If you can find a farmer market or roadside stand selling produce that was mostly grown by the farmer selling it, you can usually bet they’ve done their research and know their market. Hopefully, that means they will start with seeds that are right for your particular region. And if you don’t recognize the name of the specific variety the farmer is selling, don’t worry about it! Most fresh market hybrids are going to have new names, but they’re bred to maximize flavor and that’s what really counts.
Feel Free to Skip the Organic Section
People sometimes confuse “organic” with meaning “better tasting.” This happens by one or two ways. The first is known as the “organic halo.” For some people, the word “organic” has a lot of positive connotations and just knowing a produce is organic means their senses will interpret it differently – taste, smell, or feeling. The second way is that, at least before the rise of Big Organic, people probably encountered organic food mostly from local farmers. While organic food today is not likely to be local or from a small farmer, that initial impression of organic food as tasting better has been created and perceptions can be hard to break.
Instead of feeling pressured to purchase a more expensive organic product, follow my other tips and you’re much more likely to find produce that is just plain delicious.
When it comes to purchasing really good tasting fruit and vegetables, the trick is actually really simple – make sure the produce was ripened on the plant and was picked after it was ripe. Then, buy it as fresh as possible to get the peak taste!
Don’t worry, you can keep your straw at home!