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How to ... buy grocery produce

April 20th, 2007 at 09:12 pm

Several people –okay, family members – have asked me, “so when do you use that botany doctorate?” Well, as a former plant physiologist, I use it every time I hit the grocery store, fruit stand, or farmer’s market. Now I share some of my tricks and techniques.

If you want to save money and eat better at the same time, you want to buy only good stuff – you’ll want to eat it all then.

A produce item is a piece of plant. Simple enough. Conceptually, it is also a pipe, full of water with one end cut. The more water your plant contains, the more likely it is crisper or juicier and the more likely it will hold up better in storage. If you pick up nothing else from this how to, pick up this tip:

Good produce weighs more than you expect.

Technique 1: take 5 of anything of the same size, preferably medium. Grab each one and gently hold it in the palm of your hand for a few seconds. Pick the heaviest feeling one. No need to squeeze, no need to dig in with your fingernails and disgust everyone. Works for citrus, works for corn, works for melons, works for tomatoes, works for celery, heck, it works for garlic bulbs…it just works for everything.

Good produce smells good.

Technique 2: sniff the stem end of a fruit. It should smell appetizing, like the fruit. If you don’t smell anything and especially if it feels light, it means it’s mealy and dry. If you smell fermentation, pass it by, and if you can’t smell it because it’s wrapped in plastic … ahem, you’re not in the spirit of this, are you? Big Grin This, along with technique 1, is an especially good tip for melons and pineapple.

Side tip for the uninhibited: A quick way to assess the whole produce bin is to move some of the top most pieces and put your nose in the bin. If you can’t smell anything if you put your nose deep in the bin, it might mean that nothing’s ripe.

Good produce has a firm cut end.

Technique 3: check the stem or the cut end. It should be firm, not soft or slimy or with weird colors. It can have a little bit of soil on it for street cred, but if it’s filthy, pass it by...if it’s a farm stand, pass the whole stand by. It probably means everything was cut with that dirty knife and the storage life of anything you buy at that stand will be short.

Side tip for corn: feel the tip through the husk. The fatter, less pointed tip is the ear you want. Very pointy tips means the ear hasn’t filled out.

Good produce is not the biggest.

Technique 4: try to pick medium, medium-small sized fruit in the bin, not the largest. All the good stuff the plant puts in the fruit – sugars, acids, fragrances, flavors, secondary plant products, water – it seems like the plant will put in a certain amount, but no more. The good stuff in the larger sized fruit is diluted, spread out, while in the medium or small sized fruit, the good stuff is concentrated. It’s no secret that the gigantic apple is going to taste like a softball, while the smaller apple will taste like an apple. Not to mention that it’s a whole lot easier to figure out if something’s heavy when you don’t get thrown off by grabbing the biggest thing.

Good produce ripens with its friends.

Technique 5: check the bottom of the basket. Okay, the joke is that the produce guy puts the rotten strawberries in the bottom of the basket, and I would believe that in some cases. The truth is that many fruits ripen in the presence of ethylene gas, and that ripe fruit produces more ethylene gas. Baskets and bins often produce an enclosed space so that the fruit at the bottom of the bin or basket gets a bigger whiff of ethylene and therefore ripens faster.

Side tip: Aim for the middle of the bin for produce that you want to eat that night. Not everything is sensitive to ethylene – middle of the bin tip seems to work best for citrus, berries, bananas, and apples, and should be applied after all the other tips.

A word or two about the classic, “buy slightly soft, when the flesh yields to gentle pressure.” Good advice for buying ripe stone fruits and tomatoes. However, there are two caveats: 1.) most shoppers know that – after the sixth person submits the fruit to “gentle pressure” I guarantee you that it will be soft, but not in a delectable way. 2) you’ve picked ripe produce. Moreover, if you buy 6-7 ripe pieces of produce, you are committed to eating them within 2-3 days, which can be a challenge.

My aim with these tips is to give you the tools to pick wonderful, ripe and slightly under-ripe produce, some which you can eat right away, the rest slightly under-ripe that you can put in a bowl so you can eat wonderful produce through the week. Lots of strategy here!

Happy produce shopping!

18 Responses to “How to ... buy grocery produce”

  1. JanH Says:

    Wow, thanks for the great tips! Having grown up eating our own veggies and stuff, I've had a hard time figuring out how to actually buy something not in my backyard. I do get looks when I am smelling the tomatoes in the store. I figured that if they didn't smell like one, they wouldn't taste like one! But I've had the hardest time buying peaches. I don't get that right most of the time. I'm definitely printing this out....

  2. baselle Says:

    Peaches and nectarines are tough, but most of them smell good and again, if they are heavier than you'd expect, at least they'll be juicy. And somehow, I've had better luck with the yellow ones, not the white ones.

  3. tinapbeana Says:

    a good juicy peach will be slightly soft. not mushy, but if you squeeze it there should be a noticeable give... it should smell good, too. there's one county in my state that grows more peaches than the whole 'peach state' of georgia, so we get used to picking out the good ones!

    avocadoes are also best when their flesh is slightly soft. if you get several that are under-ripe, put them in a paper bag with an apple: the gas the apple emits will help other fruits (including tomatoes and avocadoes!) ripen...

  4. baselle Says:

    Thanks Tina - you've reminded about one other thing. And yep, the gas is ethylene.

  5. LuckyRobin Says:

    I smell everything in the produce section. The produce guy thought I was weird because I was smelling celery. But I can tell whether it is good or bitter by the smell. Nothing worse than bitter celery. Okay, other than moldy strawberries.

  6. yummy64 Says:

    Great advice! I need to bookmark this!

    Lately I've been buying fruits and veggies frozen. An overly busy schedule has been leading to fresh stuff that never gets eaten and then gets tossed.

  7. monkeymama Says:

    Oh yeah - great tips - I think we needed this. Wink

  8. Elly Says:

    Great tips!! Thanks!

  9. zetta Says:

    Got any special tips for tomatoes? Or should we just avoid them at the grocery store altogether? I even tried ones from a farmer's market once, and they were no better than the ones at the grocery. It will be awhile before my homegrown ones to come into season...

  10. scfr Says:

    Thanks for the great tips!

  11. homebody Says:

    No wonder I hate shopping with DH. He takes forever to pick out the fresh fruits and veges, now I know why. You may have saved a marriage!

  12. baselle Says:

    homebody - your DH sounds like a keeper!

    yummy - don't feel guilty about frozen; most out of season stuff takes so long to get here that all the nutrients and good stuff is gone. The frozen stuff gets harvested and frozen within 2 days. I buy a lot of veg frozen - frozen green beans are at least 1$/lb cheaper than fresh.

    zetta - boy, I have no special tips - grocery tomatoes are terrible because a great tomato doesn't travel well. I've found that the ones with the vine still on them are a little bit better - but still mediocre.

  13. saerra Says:

    Awesome post, thanks for the tips!

    Any pointers for berries in those little plastic containers? I spend quite a bit of time turning the container over, and over, and around... staring in, trying to divine the state of the berries, yet about 1/3 of the time it seems like I get home and find mold hidden in the middle Frown Very disappointing, as berries around here seem to be pretty pricey.

  14. littlegopher Says:

    Very nice tips! I went to the grocery store yesterday, and spent way too much time in the produce section - ha! I think I did well, except I kind of guessed on the state of the mangoes (I used the 'yields to pressure' technique, and am hoping I guessed right on that!) Thank you!!

  15. baselle Says:

    saerra - I have problems too, so I go for them in season, when they are cheap enough so I feel a little less bad about tossing.

    2 tips - 1.) check the spot on the counter where the plastic counter rested. It should just be water, not a lot of berry juice. 2.) If the container has holes, lift up, sniff the top for the berry smell, then look and sniff the bottom. If it smells sharp (like wine or vinegar) not good; if it smells musty, definitely not good. At the very least, the bottom of the box should smell like the top, assuming the top smells good.

  16. Susanna Says:

    I've always been frustrated by grocery store apricots because they don't smell right. Back home we ate apricots straight from my grandfather's orchard, and they smelled wonderful. Apricots must not travel well, because I have yet to find any for sale that have a discernible scent.

  17. RoseBlossom Says:

    thnk you! this will help my hubby finish his homework!
    -p-

  18. Sabrina Says:

    Can you please give me tips on Mango's Or Papaya's Or Kiwi's? Me and my kids are starting the one new fruit or veggie a week challenge so that we can expand passed the normal safe looking items! I love your tips very much thank you!

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