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Part of being a smart produce shopper is the art of picking a perfectly ripe specimen every time. Unripe ingredients aren’t necessarily harmful, but they can diminish the flavor of your dish, or simply taste different from what you’d like.
But picking the perfect produce can be challenging. There’s a huge variety of fruits and veggies, and the methods for determining their ripeness are as varied as their flavors and textures. On top of that, there’s a season for everything, so timing is also a factor.
Here are some helpful tips and tricks, things you can look out for when trying to find the freshest fruits and veggies. You may end up spending a little extra time sifting, sniffing, and squeezing, but it’ll be worth it.
Apples are one of the most versatile fruits out there, and there are about a million ways you can prepare them or work them into another dish. Picking ripe apples is pretty straightforward: It should be firm all around. Dents, wrinkles, and bruises are signs you have an over-ripe apple. If pressing on it leaves a mark, you should definitely pass.
Contrary to some beliefs, the shininess doesn’t matter. A completely dull apple that’s firm is still perfectly ripe.
This one is also easy mode: Yellow is ripe, green is not.
Sometimes, a banana that’s yellow on the outside is still unripe—its peel is thick and hard and the inside isn’t very sweet. Give it a bit of a squeeze—A ripe banana should have a little give.
Once again, contrary to some common beliefs, brown spots aren’t signs of over-ripeness. In fact, the peel is usually thinning out at that point and the fruit is approaching maximum sweetness and flavor. But if the peel is more brown than yellow, then it’s over-ripe. If it’s black, then it’s rotting (or frozen).
Oranges, nectarines, tangerines, mandarins—they’re all variations on a single theme, and the rules for all of them are the same. You want to find ones that have firm, smooth skin. The rind should be stretched tightly, like the fruit inside is trying to burst out.
Overripe citrus has skin that’s wrinkled or shriveled.
This one’s easy because you’ll “just know.” Ripe strawberries smell sweet and fragrant. In fact, a general rule of thumb is that strawberries will taste as good as they smell—if you can’t smell it, it will taste flavorless.
Ripe strawberries will be uniformly red. Other fruits can still be ripe and edible with blemishes or discoloration, but with strawberries, those are signs of mold, rot, or damage. Look for the brightest, juiciest looking berries you can find.
Did you know avocados are technically berries? They’re one of the few fruits that only ripen once they're off the vine, which is why they will always arrive at your grocery store in varying degrees of ripeness, even if all of them came in on the same shipment.
The best test for avocados is touch: A ripe fruit will be firm, but with a slight give. If it’s rock-solid, it’s not ripe yet. If it's too soft, it won't have the right texture for eating.
Smell is another way to test avocados for ripeness. They only develop a scent when they’re overripe, so you can quickly rule out any that produce a smell.
(If you don't care about potentially ruining someone else's day, you can also try this avocado hack from BuzzFeed.)
Here's another fruit that’s commonly called a vegetable. Tomatoes are ripe when the skin is stretched tight across the body, but has a little give when squeezed. Ripe tomatoes should also emit a fragrant, pungent scent from their stems—a smell that thankfully disappears once you actually cook them.
You can tell how ripe corn is by the condition of its husk. A bright green, moist husk keeps the kernels fresh. A dry one, on the other hand, usually indicates that the kernels are also dry.
When you peel back the husk of ripe corn, the silky strands should feel clingy. Of course, you might not always be able to test that at a store. Use your best judgment and other indicators.
Fresh, ripe basil will be a vibrant green and should emit a strong, recognizable aroma. Because it's leafy and therefore delicate, basil doesn't last very long after it’s picked. It needs to be used immediately or dried and stored.
You can tell basil has been sitting on the store shelves for too long if it’s dark green or black.
Ripe potatoes are supposed to be firm, so one that feels soft or squishy is clearly not what you’re looking for. Other signs that you should stay away include green spots, wrinkly skin, and sprouts. Green potato flesh and sprouts are actually poisonous, though generally not life-threateningly so.
Onions are ideally picked when the tops dry out and die, so you shouldn’t find any green, leafy parts by the time they’re at the grocery store. The best onions will be dry, and the outer skin should feel tight and crackly. Look out for soft spots—they're a sign of an onion that's begun to rot.
This one is easy: Ripe broccoli is dark green and firm to the touch, and the crowns are tightly clustered. A sure sign that you have overripe broccoli is when the crowns are yellow or flowering.
Carrots are edible for a long while after they’ve been picked, but they’re at their best when they’re vibrantly colored and smooth. Over time, they become dull and wrinkly, and they’ll sprout little stringy rootlets. Most carrots you find at the store should be just fine, but keep an eye out for those flaws.