1 How to Be a Genius in the Produce Aisle (Like Me) | The Billfold

How to Be a Genius in the Produce Aisle (Like Me)

Back before I got in touch with my inner vegetable, I brought home disappointing produce on the regular. I’d fork over a few quarters only to chomp into some mealy apple, and I’d think, What for? (Fiber.) To what end? (Doctor-prevention.) Subpar fruits and vegetables offended my sense of financial justice: If I was going to pay three Snickers bars’ worth of dollars in exchange for some beets, it only seemed fair to expect a similar level of consistency as I got in my candy bars. Produce was highway robbery! And yet, since toaster strudel jam did not provide enough vitamin C to prevent me from getting scurvy like a common pirate, I had to learn the ways of my herbaceous nemeses. I became the Produce Whisperer.

In the process, I collected a bounty of tips for gathering the ripest, freshest, crispest and/or juiciest fruits and vegetables in all the land. Today I am going to share them with you. Maybe one day we’ll meet cute squeezing cantaloupes side by side at Safeway. Probably not, though, because that’s an important moment and I wouldn’t want to interrupt.

One thing I want to get out of the way—the best produce is probably in your garden or at the farmer’s market, but sometimes that’s not an option. Maybe your farmer’s market is too expensive. Maybe you don’t have space for a garden. Maybe it’s February and you live in Wisconsin and let’s be realistic about what the possibilities of local food movements are when you live in the TUNDRA. (I’m talking to you, Ms. Fancy Year-Round-Avocadoes Alice Waters.) For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that you are not in a farmer’s market and so you need to be in Constant Vigilance mode, though these tips will fine at an organic stand, too.


1.  Apples: Use the snap test. Press lightly on an apple with your thumb and listen for a tiny snapping sound and a little pop-crunch beneath your finger. If you’ve got it, you’re golden! Though hopefully you’re not getting a golden delicious, the second-worst apple. (Red delicious is the first-worst.)


2.  Avocadoes and mangos: Use the finger press test. This is the opposite of the apple snap test—you’re looking for some give when you press on the skin, enough to leave a very slight indent. That yield is the key to the buttery avocado and smooth mango of your dreams. If there’s not much resistance when you press down, the fruit is probably past its prime. Avoid avocadoes with skins that are either dark brownish (too ripe) or bright green (not ripe enough). Mangos can be red or yellow or green in whatever combination, let their freak flags fly.


3. Bananas: Just kidding, I’m not going to tell you how to pick a banana. Everybody likes them different ways (Spotted! Slightly green! Pure yellow!) and anyway you’re an adult, you live in the world.



4. Pineapples: Pineapples are complicated, like Blair Waldorf. Therefore picking one out is high maintenance, but worth it, like having Blair Waldorf be your girlfriend. The first, easiest step is to smell the pineapple. Do you smell something sweet? Great, you’re on your way! No? Try smelling some other pineapples. If none of the pineapples smell, maybe your nose is broken, what now?

The second step is to look at the pineapple’s color. Ideally you want the yellow creeping on up toward the pineapple’s little leaf-hairdo. The pineapple industry will try to tell you that a pineapple can be fully green and still ripe, but that’s a trap to try to get you to buy their shoddy pineapples.

You can also pull on a leaf if you want. It won’t tell you anything, but maybe it’ll help you release some of that pent-up aggression you brought into the grocery store today, tiger. You might also try pressing on the skin to see if it’s got a little yield to it—that would be good—but honestly it’s still going to be a bit of a gamble.

It’s also worth noting that while pineapples have the personality of Blair Waldorf, they look more like Serena Van Der Woodson.


5.  Figs: The uglier, the better. This is great, because figs are like the velveteen rabbits of fruit. Is your fig splitting a little at the seams? Totally fine. Is it a weird blackish-purple color? Don’t hate, that’s the Turkish variety’s personal style. Just make sure the stem’s not too loose—it’s a telltale sign of inner mushiness. Now tell your fig a bedtime story, but don’t get too attached, because figs are food not friends.


6. Artichokes: These are my favorite, because they’re a project food. You get to take them apart really slowly and then at the end you get a prize! It’s like writing a dissertation but faster and actually fun. The best artichokes have leaves that are still tight facing toward the center. The leaves should squeak a little bit if you rub them against each other, like timid mice.


A few other tips: In general, don’t buy produce in bags at the grocery store unless we’re talking hard-to-mess-up items like potatoes and onions. The stores like to gather up all their least enticing produce and put them in a bag where you can’t test them. If you’re buying berries in a clear plastic box, always look at the underside so you can see if they’re all squished at the bottom.

Voila, you are a produce wizard! Now you will get the maximum taste bang for your buck, and all your friends will be so impressed with your produce-picking secret talent. Then they will try to convince you that your second secret talent is cutting mangoes, but that is because they don’t like cutting mangoes, it’s too messy. Don’t let them trick you.


Sarah Todd is mentally casting an all-fruit version of Pretty Little Liars. She blogs about feminism and popular culture over at Girls Like Giants

Illustrations by Charrow, an artist in Brooklyn. 


24 Comments / Post A Comment

soogee (#689)

Pineapples- some say they’re ripe when the eyes are all the same size throughout the pineapple. I’m not sure if this is necessarily true, though. It helps if you smell the base! If it smells sweet you’re usually golden.

ges (#1,983)

@soogee I’ve also heard this pineapple trick – take the stem and leaves in one hand and try to twist them. If they twist slightly, it’s ripe.

thenotestaken (#542)

The smell test also works well for peaches and nectarines!

Strawberries: I’ve had to bite the bullet and start buying the organic ones. Sends the grocery bill through the roof, but non-organic ones consistently taste so bad that there’s no other option.

Tangerines and clementines: check the label to see what country they originate from! The US-grown citrus is pretty bad, but if it says Spain or Morocco or something, you’re in luck!

ThatWench (#269)

@werewolfbarmitzvah I still have no good solution for strawberries. Growing up, we grew them in the backyard, and wound up with these ugly, lumpy, tiny, fall-apart-from-looking-at-them berries, and half the time you’d have to cut off half due to slug bites…

and they tasted so. very. amazing. that I have never found a commercially-available berry that came remotely close. Farmer’s market berries do better than grocery stores, but they still don’t measure up to berries that would literally fall apart in the bowl due to being overwhelmed by their own juiciness.

Megano! (#124)

Red Delicious ARE the worst apple! Why are they so terrible!? Ugh, I don’t even want to think about them.
Best apple is definitely the Macintosh, which is why I haven’t gone to Apple Town since having my braces removed, because they are not in season and I can’t find them ANYWHERE.

@Megano! our apple preferences are perfectly aligned. Why do they put the word “delicious” in the name when they are VERY CLEARLY NOT?

riggssm (#297)

@Anna Jayne@twitter They’ve been bred to be a red color, apparently without considering the taste or texture. My grandmother had red delicious trees on her farm. Her apples tasted nothing like the store bought kind.

Ditto for tomatoes.

lora.bee (#1,904)

@Megano! Red Delicious are awful! So bland!! Spartan apples 4eva.

sony_b (#225)

@riggssm Small nitpick – apples aren’t “bred” – they are grafted. I can’t remember the name for it now, but if you plant appleseeds from an apple you have eaten, you will not get trees bearing fruit similar to the one you ate. Every seed is massively mutated from the parent, so good tasting apples are a crapshoot, and once you have one, it’s like winning the fruit lottery because you can name it and sell grafts for monstrous prices. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire explains it well. (Highly recommend the book as a whole – he talks about apples, potatoes, pot, and tulips and it’s fascinating. And short.)

My theory about your grandmother’s better apples is that other factors were in play – freshness, soil composition, water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. So maybe Golden Delicious were really tasty at one point? No idea. Give me a Honeycrisp or a Gala any day of the week. :)

selenana (#673)

@Megano! Pink ladies, Fujis, and Granny Smiths if you’re baking.

Another solid apple test is to peek at the bottom, where the flowering but used to be. If it looks fresh and green, the apple is probably excellent. If it looks dried out or has started to split, it’s probably going to be mealy. This is also a good way to choose between different varieties of apple, should you be overwhelmed. Just go with whichever batch looks best!

@rbrtposteschild Oh god flowering bud. Flowering bud. This is what I get for going with tea instead of coffee.

EmmaG (#1,023)

@rbrtposteschild This is an excellent tip! I have been judging my apples by weight – i.e. if it feels heavy for its size. The heavier the apple, the crisper it seems to be. But I’m going to try this one now too. Thanks!

nutmeg (#1,383)

Some avocados are supposed to be green! You’re less likely to find them in the grocery store (also they’re kind of stringy? Hass are way smooshier).

Scurvy is one of my (many) irrational fears, even though vitamin C is among the easiest water-soluble vitamin to add to anything so my chances of scurvy are slim to none (BUT STILL)

@nutmeg Yeah I think they are called “florida avocados” and they have a weird skin and are bright green. But ugh I think they are yucky compared to Hass.

riggssm (#297)

Any tips for broccoli? Sometimes I get it and it’s fine, other times it tastes acidic or rancid.

blair (#1,962)

avocadoes! if you snap off the little button at the end and peer into it, green means GOOD and gray or brown means MUSH. it’s like a peephole!

@blair This is good to know! I’ve also heard that doing so makes them ripen a little faster, which may be a myth.

breakfast (#633)

@Kevin Knox@facebook Wait a minute. I heard that snapping off the button makes them stop ripening!

Thank you for this! But is there any way to test produce without leaving a trail of indented and slightly bruised fruit and vegetables in your wake? (Do you really want to be That Person in the grocery store?)

caro (#1,976)

@gracechua@twitter Definitely don’t be that person. Squeeze an avocado like a baseball. It won’t cause bruising the way poking will.

mer@twitter (#2,150)

I like this.

Great job.

His subject is good, long while I find this topic and I think it is here, world population day

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