One of the keys to making delicious, healthy food is to start with fresh ingredients. Choosing produce that is damaged or unripe can ruin a recipe, and possibly be harmful to your health. Here are some suggestions to help you find the best produce when you go shopping.
Appearance is a great indicator of whether an item is ready for consumption. You should always start by scanning fruits or vegetables for obvious flaws, such as pits, dents, or wrinkles. These are a sign that the item was either damaged in shipping or has started to rot. Skin and peels protect vegetables from decay, so be careful about buying an item whose skin has been broken. For example, an onion with a cracked peel will probably be too dry on the inside.
When it comes to colour, each plant has a different set of rules. The same colour may be good or bad, depending on what you are buying. Green skin is a good sign on cantaloupes, but bad for potatoes, nectarines, and rhubarb. Some fruits, like figs and mangoes, come in a variety of colours, so it's better to rely on feeling for them. Colour can also tell you the age of an item. Pineapples and bananas go from green to yellow to brown over time. The choice of which one to buy depends on when you plan to use it. Brown is almost always a signal that an item is past its prime, with one notable exception: brown bananas are great for baking!
After an item passes the visual test, you can pick it up and start feeling. Make sure there are no dents under the skin. If any part feels overly moist or slimy, move on to the next one. The next step is to check its firmness by giving it a slight squeeze. Firm but not hard is a good rule of thumb for most fruits and vegetables. Some vegetables, such as zucchini, sugar snap peas, and onions can be a bit harder. Others, like tomatoes and avocados, really need to give a bit under pressure before they can be eaten. If a piece of fruit is heavy, it is likely juicier. This is especially true of melons and citrus fruit. If you are buying salad greens or produce with leafy stems, the leaves should be crisp and snap off easily. This test is great for pineapples.
Although sight and touch are the main tools for finding fresh produce, your other senses can also be useful. Some fruits, especially melons, give off a slight sweet fragrance. Of course, if anything smells unpleasant, it should be left behind. You can even use your ears sometimes - an aubergine that sounds hollow when tapped is probably overripe.
Finally, if you want to maximise shelf life, stay away from produce that is already peeled or sliced. While there's no doubt that pre-cut produce saves time and effort, exposing the inside of a vegetable or fruit sets the decaying process in motion. This shortens the lifespan of produce, increasing the likelihood that you will need to throw away uneaten food.
Developing an eye for the freshest produce takes time and requires a lot of trial and error. By practicing and following these suggestions, you'll be able to make better tasting food, save money, and even improve your health.