Most people know instinctively to avoid bruised or blemished produce, but there is much more involved in the art of choosing fruits and vegetables.
While buying fresh food is always a little bit of a crap-shoot (and not every rule will apply to every piece of produce), these tips will give you the basic skills you need to hold your own at the farmers market.
What To Look For When Picking Produce
1. Bright color
After you've checked for bruises, blemishes and pests (harder to see on vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage, so double check), look for fruits and vegetables with the brightest, most inviting colors. The tastiest, vine-ripened produce should be vibrant, with its skin entirely saturated with color. If the item has a dull color or whitish sheen, that means it is either not fully ripe or was deprived of sun or nutrients.
For fruits like cherries, look for stems that are green instead of brown, since these fruits will be fresher.
2. Heavy weight
Generally you want to pick produce that is the heaviest relative to the rest of your options. Lightweight produce is more likely to be dry and mealy, but heavier produce will be juicy and crisp.
The best way to tell is to pick up two similarly-sized fruits, one with each hand. After you've tried a few, it will be obvious that certain fruits are much heavier than the rest, and those are your best bets. This applies to both fruits and vegetables, but mostly to fruits.
3. Firm, but not hard
Because the best produce is moist and juicy (see point #2), it should also be perfectly plump. This means that it will be firm to the touch -- think crisp and succulent -- but not hard, squishy or limp.
While the perfect amount of firmness will vary for each type of produce, comparing within the batch can be very informative. For soft fruits, gently picking a piece up should tell you if it's too soft or hard.
For vegetables with stalks like carrots and broccoli, be sure the ends don't give too much when you try to bend them (but don't try too hard or they might snap).
While this tip works as a general rule, keep in mind that it doesn't apply to everything. Figs, for example, are better very soft, as are certain kinds of persimmons.
4. Fragrant aroma
Probably the most telling test of the quality of your fruit is how it smells. Unripe fruits smell like nothing, or at best the cardboard it was packed in. But ripe produce almost always smells faintly (and often overwhelmingly) of how it is supposed to taste.
Hold the part of the fruit that was attached to the stem close to your nose and breathe deeply. Compare a few of your options. The strongest smelling fruit will be the most ripe and ready to eat immediately. If you'd like your fruit to last for a few days, it is best to go with a piece that still smells good, but has a less overwhelming scent.
It's also worth smelling your vegetables, though this tip does not apply to them all (eggplant is a notable exception). Green leafy vegetables and herbs are particularly fragrant. But even carrots, artichokes and squash can have a distinctive smell. Peppers are my personal favorite.
What are your tips for picking perfect produce?