While good vegetables are relatively easy to pick, ripe and delicious fruit can be a much trickier matter. What we look for in ripe fruit is fragrance and sweetness and this is something that is very difficult to tell from looks alone. These days it is common farming practice to pick fruit before it is ripe to increase shelf life and also because ripe fruit is more fragile and harder to handle. A lot of fruit is artificially ripened away from the tree, shrub or vine, which explains why so much fruit lacks the flavour and sweetness that we carry in childhood memory. It is so disappointing to cut open a melon that has no pleasant aroma or to bite into a peach that while pinkly blushed on the outside, is mouth puckering sour on the inside. Even worse to serve this fruit to children already suspicious of your ideas about food, only to have it turned down and abandoned after a single bite. Here is a cheat sheet on how to select sweet and ripe fruit.
Select heavy, firm apples with colour that most matches the description of the variety. Brown spots indicate bruising. Apples release ethylene as they ripen and will ripen surrounding fruits. Keep apples in the fridge once they have reached ideal ripeness.
If you intend to eat them straight away, then pick bananas with bright yellow colour. If you see splitting at the stem end, avoid. During warmer weather, I buy greener bananas because they ripen very quickly. A blackly spotted banana is not necessarily an indication of a now over-ripe fruit. If you put bananas in the fridge or freezer, their skins turn black but they can still be intact inside.
While you’ll never get to handle blueberries unless you go to the farm and pick them yourself, inspect berry punnets carefully. Berries should appear firm, intact and dry with no sticky juice leakage. They should be blue with no red or green.
Cantaloupe, Rockmelon and Honeydew Melon:
Always give your melons a good sniff. Melons are one of the most fragrant of fruits and smell is a good indication of flavour. Melons should be firm with no soft spots, minimal scarring and feel heavy. The end of a melon opposite to the stem end should have a slight give. The net pattern on a cantaloupe should be raised and not flat. Honeydews should not be green but a creamy colour with a waxy feel. Check the stem end; avoid fruits squishy or mouldy here.
Cherries unlike other stone fruit do not ripen off the tree. The deeper the colour the sweeter the cherry will be. Fruit should be shiny, firm, but not rock hard without soft spots which indicate bruising. Try to pick cherries with stems on as they last longer. Wash cherries just before you intend to eat them because once the skin is damaged, they quickly decay. Greener the stems, the fresher the fruit.
For ripe coconuts, pick up the coconut and weight it in your hand, it should feel heavy and you should feel coconut water sloshing inside. Coconuts with no soft decaying spots are best. For young green coconuts, often the green skin has been removed so you only see the white husk. It should feel heavy and firm with no soft spots or blemishes and slosh minimally as young green coconuts should have very little air inside.
Fruit should be plump, soft and fragrant. Smell your figs. Fig skins get darker as they ripen. Pick intact fruit and avoid cracked or split ones. Stems should be intact. A little leakage from the end opposite the stem indicates a lot of fruit sugar.
Pick bunches of grapes with firm, plump fruit. Avoid bunches with loosely attached fruit or a lot of bare stems, or wrinkled and brown fruit. Sticky bunches of grapes often indicate some fruit damage and will decay faster. The greener the stems, the fresher the fruit.
Should be firm, fuzzy, with a slight give when pressed. Avoid those with shrivelled or wrinkly skin. Ripen in a paper bag with a ripe apple or banana.
Pick fruits that have turned mostly yellow or red, feels firm with a slight give. Smell your mangos at the stem end; they should have a strong and delicious fragrance. Black spots tend to penetrate the skin and create mushy spots so avoid those. Skin should be smooth and not wrinkly.
Oranges, grapefruit, mandarins, tangelos:
Weigh oranges in your hand and select the heaviest fruits as this indicates juiciness. The colour of an orange is ironically not important. The skin should feel thin, firm and smooth, unless you’re picking something for its thick skin specifically. Marks on the outside don’t generally affect the fruit unless it’s a serious soft spot. Avoid shrivelled looking fruit. Fragrance is a good indication of flavour.
Pears are tricky because they degrade very quickly away from the tree. Fruit should feel firm. Choose fruit to ripen at home rather than soft specimens that will inevitably bruise. Avoid scratched and bruised fruit and brown spots.
Choose fruit that has smooth, mostly yellow skin and it will ripen to bright yellow. Fruit should be firm with very slight yield and feel heavy. Avoid fruit with cuts and soft spots. A good papaya has a strong and delicious smell.
Smell your pineapple at the stem end. Try to pick pineapples with leaves on as removing the top opens the fruit to decay. Leaves should look fresh and not brittle and dry. Soft squishy spots should be avoided. Heavy fruit will be juicier.
Colour is important here: red and a deep orange are your best bet. Choose intact fruit. The Hachiya type of persimmon has to have an internal consistency like jelly to be eaten. This is really delicious with yogurt. Fuyu varieties are firm and crunchy.
Weigh pomegranates in your hand; heaviness is an indication of juiciness. We usually avoid cracked fruit, but this can indicate that it is fit to burst with fruit and seed. If crack is mouldy, avoid.
Quinces are inevitably rock hard. If it’s not, there’s something wrong with it. Quinces should be all yellow and the more fuzz it still has on it, the less it was handled.
Raspberries and Blackberries:
Pick punnets of berries with no pale yellow or green segments. Wash just before serving to avoid damaging the skins. Avoid punnets with squished berries; these will be mouldy by the next day.
For the most part picking a good strawberry can be downright impossible as most varieties we buy have little flavour or fragrance and have been bred to be sturdy and long lasting. Try to pick berries that are shiny with healthy green tops, not shrivelled and brown. Berries should be red all over with no yellow or green spots. Pick the punnet with the least or no squashed looking specimens.
Peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots: Look at the background colour of the skin and ensure that there is no hint of green. It should largely be yellow. The red blush is now bred into fruit to occur before it is even ripe. The fruit should feel firm but not rock hard. Plums should be shiny and the whitish dust that occurs is normal. Peaches, nectarines and plums can improve in colour, juiciness and texture after they have been picked. Pick only apricots which are ready to eat. Stone fruit should have good shape, with an apparent seam and nicely shaped shoulders (the rounded bits at the top of the fruit on either side of the seam). Ripen in a paper bag with a ripe apple or banana.
Ripe watermelons have a dark green coloured rind and feel firm and heavy. The darker the seeds on a cut piece of watermelon, the riper it is. If selecting a whole melon, give it a gentle knock on the outside; it should sound hollow.