In times of stress, people are often encouraged to close their eyes and “transport” themselves to a “pristine beach” or “fond memory.” But my happy place is… the produce section of the grocery store. I fantasize about walking to my local market, stuffing my canvas bags with as many fruits and vegetables as I can carry (and afford), and laying out my bounty on my kitchen table like a stunning Renaissance still-life. The fantasy unfolds as I stand back and take it all in: a turquoise pint of raspberries nestled in kale’s shade. Kumquats hobnobbing with celery. Radishes. Grapes. Fat-bottomed figs. A sumptuous sumo orange lookin’ like an absolute snack. I’m horny for wholesomeness, what can I say.
When it comes to the reality of grocery shopping, you know what really bruises the aforementioned fantasy of mine? Attempting to evaluate fruit ripeness based on vague tips and myths I’ve picked up from friends and sketchy corners of the internet. Am I supposed to sniff a peach or give it a gentle squeeze? Do I really have to knock on a watermelon to gauge its juiciness? Luckily, Andrew Heinecke—greengrocer for Bi-Rite Market, a San Francisco-based grocery store known for its ultra-fresh produce—was happy to answer my (and likely your) burning questions. Here’s what he told me about picking fruit that’s at its peak.
For the sweetest slice, Heinecke says to choose whatever watermelon feels the heaviest for its size, and has the most sugar spots. The sugar spots are those brown “pollination points” that look like reptile skin. (Is that gross? Sorry.)
When picking out a cantaloupe (or any similar melon, like honeydew, crenshaw, charentais, galia, etc.), check for a sweet fragrance, and like watermelon, grab the heaviest for its size.
Same goes for pineapple: sweet smell, weight-to-size ratio. But Heinecke also suggests lightly tugging on the leaves at the center-top of the crown, which “should loosen and pop off fairly easily when ripe.”
“Smell for sweetness, never squeeze!” Heinecke says. Look for a regular shape, and—you guessed it—feel the weight for the size. These rules apply to all stone fruit, like apricots and plums.
Heinecke says that squeezing an avocado will damage it—similar to stone fruit—so try hugging it gently with your palm. When it’s ripe, there should be a little give. “For Hass avocados, you can also wiggle the nub at the top and if it comes right off and there’s bright green underneath, you have a winner,” Heinecke says.
“Here’s where you can give a gentle squeeze with the palms of your hands, using your fingertips to increase pressure. There should be a slight give.”
Heinecke says to look for glossy skin and simple firmness.
“Apples should be richly colored for their specific varieties, with no bruises or wrinkles.”
“Pears are tricky because so many of them are delicious throughout much of their entire life at a store. A very general guideline for finding a ripened pear in its prime is to check the stem end very gently for softness. A tiny bit of give is fine.”
“These are best when firm-to-almost-bursting, and richly colored.”
Again, you’re after rich color and firmness. “Different varieties have different coloration, so it helps to get a little info on the varieties in your store.”
Lastly, Heinecke suggests developing a relationship with your local greengrocer, whether you shop at a grocery store or farmer’s market. “Look for a shop that emphasizes organic, responsible, farm-direct offerings. Organic and responsible aren’t always the same thing,” he says. “Talk to them about seasonality, quality, and flavor. Ask about healthy farming, sourcing, and pricing. By showing them that you value the most commonly discussed agricultural topics, you’re letting them know that you’re serious about getting their best offerings.” You can also expect to be given a few samples and exclusive treats, he adds.
And on that note, I’m heading to the market with every tote bag I can find in my house.