How to Tell When Produce is Ripe
Ken Immer | 11/18/2016
When purchasing produce, the biggest question is often, “When is ______ ripe?”. A better question to ask is, “Should I buy it before it’s ripe or when it’s ripe?” Sometimes buying foods before they are ripe can be a good strategy, as long as you consider when you plan to eat it and how many days it will be stored before use. We end up wasting a lot of food because it ‘turns past its prime’ before we have a chance to eat it. We can save money and time by using ripeness as a purchasing strategy rather than just a countdown clock till you throw produce away.
Here are a few items that can be purchased at varying degrees of ripeness or being ready to eat:
- Ready to eat: When the skin is uniformly dark, and when squeezed gently it gives a bit but is not mushy. The small nub of a stem should still be attached but should come off easily with your finger.
- Timeline: Avocados start off green and very hard, but they do ripen quickly, usually within 3-4 days if purchased green. Once they are ready to eat, they can be refrigerated for 3-4 more days, whole and uncut.
- Storage: Do not refrigerate until ripe! Keep them in a countertop bowl away from sunlight. Storing in a paper bag can accelerate ripening.
- Ready to eat: Most people like to eat a banana when it is uniformly yellow, with minimal dark spots. However, they can be eaten until well spotted, as they get sweeter and softer the longer they sit.
- Timeline: Bananas, like avocados, start off green and very hard, but ripen at different rates depending on a number of factors. On average, a green banana will be ready to eat within 5-7 days. A ‘green tip’ banana which is, as it sounds, just green at the top near the stem, may take 1-2 days to become completely yellow.
- Storage: Bananas will ripen slowly in a refrigerator. However, the skin will darken more quickly than the flesh softens. Again, similar to avocados, they do well on the countertop away from the sun. Bananas are often bunched with a plastic wrapped around the stem ends, which extends their ripening time. Once removed, they ripen much more quickly.
- Ready to eat: Look for green husks that are not dried out with shiny silks. Peel back about 2 inches of the husk and make sure that the kernels are plump and tightly arranged.
- Timeline: Choose corn that is either in a refrigerated section or an especially cool part of the store. Any heat can cause it to rot very quickly. Otherwise, corn will keep 2-3 days after purchase as long as it’s kept in the husk.
- Storage: Store in the refrigerator, but really, corn is best eaten immediately.
- Ready to eat: Choose an eggplant that is firm and heavy for its size. Also look for vivid color and avoid all soft spots or bruises, as this indicates decaying flesh beneath the skin. Any indentation that does not spring back after gentle finger pressure means a past-ripe eggplant.
- Timeline: Eggplants are very perishable and have just 2-3 days after purchase before starting to decay and dry.
- Storage: Store in the refrigerator, and if purchased wrapped in plastic, remove immediately, as it keeps it from breathing and will go bad faster.
- Ready to eat: Mangoes can be purchased green, and are ready to eat when either uniformly yellow or with a red highlight. Some mangoes do retain a little bit of green when they are ripe as well, so you should also give them a little squeeze. Their sweet aroma is the best indicator since the coloring can be deceptive. Also, they should be slightly soft like an avocado, not hard like an apple when ripe.
- Timeline: Depending on the type of mango, it can take anywhere from 3 days to a week for them to fully ripen.
- Storage: Never refrigerate an unripe mango, as with other tropical fruits. However once ripe they can remain in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- Melon (cantaloupe/honeydew)
- Ready to eat: Melons are a tricky bunch, as the coloring and firmness are not always reliable indicators. ‘Thumping’ is also not exactly a science. When you pick it up, it should be heavy for its size, and looking at the stem end of the fruit gives more reliable info. The stem end should be brown and not green, and should have a nice aroma. If the aroma is especially strong, however, it’s likely past its prime.
- Timeline: Again, not super reliable, but melons have a fairly long shelf-life, especially if they are picked green (green stem). They can take up to a week from purchase to completely ripen. Because of the challenges, purchasing them only ready to eat is recommended.
- Storage: Unripe melons ripen on the countertop, and stored for only a day or two in the crisper drawer where you have higher humidity
- Ready to eat: Pineapples are officially ready to eat as soon as they are picked, as they do not continue to officially ‘ripen’, but they do begin to soften and become juicier. Choosing a pineapple that is sweet and of good texture is the skill. Plucking a leaf is a good indication; it should come out easily and have a nice sweet aroma
- Timeline: Waiting to eat your pineapple only changes the texture of the fruit. Pineapples are highly perishable and will actually ferment at room temperature in a few days, so watch them closely and use within a day or two after purchase.
- Storage: The best way to store pineapple is to cut and refrigerate. But if you do refrigerate a whole pineapple, wrap it to keep it fresher longer.
- Tomato (not grape tomatoes)
- Ready to eat: Tomatoes are best eaten straight from the vine in your backyard when they are vibrant red (or yellow!), heavy, with a firm skin with just a tiny amount of give. However, store-bought tomatoes are picked green because they are highly perishable and damage easily when ripe. They will, however, turn red after picking, but never truly ‘ripen,’ which is why homegrown tomatoes are completely different from those purchased.
- Timeline: Tomatoes can take anywhere from 2 days to a week to be ready to eat after purchasing, depending on how green or hard they are at purchase. They will spoil very quickly once soft.
- Storage: Tomato texture changes dramatically when refrigerated, so they should always be kept at room temperature unless cut.
Because a lot of produce has ‘stages’ of when they are ready to eat, it really is best to think about when you want to consume them as to when you should buy them, and what stage they should be at when you do purchase them. For items like bananas and avocados that change quickly, it’s good to purchase multiple fruit in different stages (i.e. purchase 1 green and hard, 1 almost ripe, and 1 with 2-3 days of ripening left.) That way, you will always have a perfectly ripe banana or avocado on hand. A little bit of meal planning is required to make this work, but the strategy of just buying everything ‘green’ for later can backfire as EVERYTHING becomes ‘ready to eat’ at once! The best rule of thumb is to never over buy produce unless you just can’t make it to a store very often.