In the colorful labyrinth that is your supermarket’s produce section, it’s tempting to stick to the same familiar aisles for fear of getting lost somewhere between the root vegetables and stone fruits. As you weave through section after section, questions abound. What’s the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? (Hint: There is none!) How do I know if this avocado is ripe? (It’s lightly soft but not mushy.)
Fear not. Grocery store staff are on call to answer your distress signal. Here are seven things your local produce manager wants you to know.
1. ALL FRUITS AND VEGETABLES ARE SEASONAL
Some just happen to be in season every month of the year. While you can find almost everything you’re looking for all year long (thanks to greenhouses and produce imports), buying fruits and vegetables during their peak season means you enjoy more flavor, nutritionally benefit from fresher produce, and pay less. Berries are sweeter during spring and summer, while root vegetables peak fall through spring. Check out our seasonal produce guides for more, or ask your produce manager for the lowdown.
2. LOCAL DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN LOCAL
Hoo boy. Here’s the thing about buying local: There is no real regulation on distance when it comes to the ever-trendy designation. The source could be within a few miles or as far as a few hundred miles away. If you’re concerned about where your food is coming from, don’t rely on a sign stating that produce is local. Ask the produce manager where it was grown.
3. WASH YOUR FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Unless it has a thick, inedible rind (like bananas, pineapples, and watermelons), you should always wash your produce before eating it. Even potatoes should be washed before peeling. A thorough rinse with cold water will remove most dirt and pesticide residue. If you want hardy fruits and veggies like apples and peppers squeaky clean, give them a quick soak in a bath of baking soda bath or vinegar diluted in water.
4. IT’S OK TO SQUEEZE AND SNIFF THINGS
Get up close and personal with your produce. It’s often the only way to tell if it’s ripe. Cantaloupes, for example, are ripe when their bottoms smell sweet. Juicy watermelons will sound hollow when you tap them. Ask your produce manager for a quick crash course on how to best select your favorites.
5. IT’S ALSO OK TO ASK FOR A FREE SAMPLE
Produce managers are encouraged to slice and offer free samples of certain fruits and vegetables. If they aren’t offering any, simply smile and say, “Pretty please.” They should be happy to oblige.
6. NOT ALL PRODUCE SHOULD BE TREATED EQUALLY
If you remember only one sentence on this page, remember this: Please, for the love of farmers, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator! Ever. That goes for mushrooms, too, unless they’re in a paper bag. Cold temperatures tend to weaken the flavor of produce, so it’s best to serve things at room temperature if you can. Some items, however, should be refrigerated if you don’t plan to eat them immediately. Think leafy greens, carrots, and other produce you find cold at the store. Keep them unwashed in their original packaging. If something is extra wet or dirty, wash and dry it, then transfer to a loose plastic bag with an absorbent paper towel inside to prevent mold or bacteria growth.
7. CUT THOSE BAD KNIFE HABITS
We know the appeal of having that one kitchen knife that works on everything. But not all fruits and veggies like to be sliced with a regular old stainless steel knife. Apples, for instance, brown more easily that way. They much prefer to be chopped with a ceramic knife, thank you very much. This goes for any produce that is prone to browning, like avocados and heads of lettuce.