By Himanee Gupta-Carlson
Early September is a time of abundance at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market: Summer squashes, tomatoes, and eggplants are plentiful. Fruits such as peaches, plums, cantaloupes, and watermelons are just coming in. The harder shelled delicata, acorn, and spaghetti squashes are making their first appearances, giving market goers much to choose.
With the choices come questions of sweetness and ripeness: Which tomato is sweetest? Will that watermelon be red and juicy when cut, or green and bitter?
There are no easy answers, as one only knows the true taste of such items when they’ve been cut open. And many traditional methods of testing summer produce for ripeness like knocking on melons or squeezing tomatoes are unreliable and potentially damaging.
However, there are a few tricks to determining ripeness.
“Color, feel, and smell,” says Paul Moyer, of Old World Farm, which brings nearly 50 varieties of tomatoes to market. Moyer picks up a tomato and holds it, “like you would hold a baby or a fragile item that might easily break.” He recommends looking for uniformity in color, touching it very gently for firmness, and smelling it at the base. Similar principles apply to eggplants.
Soft skinned zucchini and summer squash should be firm but not hard and unblemished. They will spoil quickly so are best used soon after purchase. Harder skinned winter squashes, however, will continue to ripen after harvest and often gain sweetness with time.
Farmers harvest some fruits before they reach full ripeness such as peaches or plums to avoid spoilage. They might be rock hard at market but will soften within a few days if kept in a bowl on a counter away from the sun.
That practice differs, however, for melons, which will remain ripe if picked ripe but will be hard and bitter if harvested too soon, says Ryan Holub, of Scotch Ridge Trees & Berries. Scotch Ridge sells berries in the summer and fall, and seedlings for backyard gardens in spring. Among its offerings this year were watermelon plants, which are producing melons now.
“If it twists off the stem easily, it’s ready,” Holub says, adding that a melon picked too soon has little chance of ripening once off the vine.