FARGO — Finding the freshest fruits and vegetables without knowing the recipe for ripeness can be much like gambling on a mystery-flavored Dum Dum. You never know what you're going to get ... until you taste it.
Before strolling down the produce aisle, arm yourself with tips from the experts to find delicious fruit.
Don Kinzler, a Forum gardening columnist and former NDSU Extension horticulturist, says one notable aspect to consider when buying produce is knowing which ones continue to ripen after being picked versus those that don't. While in a home garden you can control when you harvest, at the grocery store, you're at the mercy of what they have to offer.
"It's fine to buy green bananas because they'll ripen fine. Strawberries, on the other hand, don't continue to ripen. If they're under-ripe in the grocery store, they won't improve after purchase," he says. "It's important to know, is this going to continue to ripen or is this as good as it gets? More do not ripen after (picking) than do ripen."
As the produce manager at Hornbacher's in the Osgood neighborhood of Fargo, Dan Yamane's job is to make sure the produce displayed for consumers is at the peak level of ripeness. But for those who want to ensure a better shot at purchasing the softest pears, juiciest citrus fruits and sweetest melons, here are some telltale signs.
When it comes to bananas, preferences range from firm and green to soft and browning with spots. Grocers must keep this in mind when ordering the fruit.
"We have a specific 'green (purchasing) code' that helps up keep that rotation going," Yamane says, referring to the bright green, unripe bananas. "Then you have what's called a 'turner.' Turners can obviously vary quite a bit in terms of color, even within the same case."
To ensure peak ripeness, bananas make the long trek up from Central America nearly as green as a lime. They will not ripen until bumped with extra ethylene gas, a naturally occurring plant hormone in charge of regulating the speed of growth and development.
"They have ripening rooms at the warehouses where they pump in ethylene, they pump in heat. Basically, that gets the process started," Yamane says.
Day by day, they slowly gain color at room temperature, and while Yamane recommends storing them at a similar temperature after purchase, refrigeration is useful when you trying to delay the ripening process.
"You can slow the ripening process by putting them in the fridge when they start to spot," he says. "Yes, the skin will turn gray and then black. But it won't affect the fruit on the inside."
Surprisingly, ripeness of apples is not indicated by redness, Kinzler says.
"Apples develop red color long before they're ripe," he says. "But most apples have a two-tone color — red plus a yellowish or cream. If (the apple) is red and the background color is green, usually it's underripe."
(Note: That trick doesn't work with a yellow delicious apple.)
"On any citrus, what you want to look for is it should feel heavy for its size," Yamane says.
Whether comparing an orange to an orange or a lemon to a lemon, shoppers should be able to feel the difference in weight.
"Really, it's pretty simple. The heavier it is, the more juice content on the internal," Yamane says. "You want it to be firm. The skin should be presentable — no dings, dents, if at all possible."
Both lemons and limes should yield to the touch slightly.
"Limes are actually one where when they get bad, they feel like a rock. It's just harder to work with," he says. "You can combat that but just putting gentle pressure on it and rolling it before you cut it — that'll make it a bit easier."
Pineapple seems to have many theories behind its ripeness — some people take a whiff while others dig a little deeper to pull a leaf from the crown. Yamane goes by feel.
"Regardless of the green color you're going to see, if you feel it, it should yield slightly to the touch but not too much," he says. "It's going to be slightly soft when you cut it and not crunchy as you get to the core."
Kinzler notes pineapples do not continue to ripen after picking and has his own theory to add to the mix.
"You're supposed to be able to lift the pineapple, close your eyes and sniff. If you can tell it's a pineapple, it's a good one," he says.
Because they are sometimes tightly packed in a case upon arrival, shoppers should be aware of bruising around the bottom of the pineapple.
Similar to avocados, kiwis can be left at room temperature to ripen.
"When they are ripe, you're going to find a slight yield — just slightly soft versus one that looks ripe but is a little bit firmer," Yamane says.
Ensuring you don't end up with a hard pear is actually more simple than one might expect.
"The best way (to tell) on most of your pears is right at the tip — it'll be slightly soft, whether it's your D'anjou or your Bosc (pears). Your red pears will be the same way," Yamane says.
When melons — including cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon — arrive at the store, the sugar content is at its peak but produce managers continue to let them soften for optimal texture.
"Right around the stem end, when they get ripe, it should yield slightly," Yamane says.
For watermelon enthusiasts, it's all about the sound. "Thumping," "tapping" or "plunking" a watermelon should yield a hollow sound. In comparing watermelons, shoppers should be able to pick out a more hollow-sounding melon.
"People might look at you funny but really there is a different ring on a product that tends to be better," Yamane says. "(The hollow sound) supposedly goes back to the liquid level in there. I've always been told that the higher amount of liquid content resonates a higher tone."
Kinzlers has heard the sound described as what you'd expect to hear when thumping on a rubber, water-filled ball or the top of a leather shoe.
The "crown spot" can also indicate ripeness, Kinzler says. "If that is yellow instead of white, it's good. They turn yellow when they're more ripe."
What happens to fruit passed its prime?
In culling through their supply, produce staff look for visual cues such as dehydration, shriveling, dings and dents. But just because the fruit looks overripe doesn't mean it doesn't taste delicious.
"Fortunately for us, we do a lot of cut fruit on premises," Yamane says. "The melon might be a little shriveled on the outside but the fruit is wonderful on the inside. We'll pull that back, get it prepped, pre-chilled and then we'll cut it."
This program also cuts down on the amount of produce wasted while simultaneously offering convenience to customers.
Stay tuned for a second article about choosing the best vegetables that will publish on March 6.