Nature's Secret Code: How to Select Vegetables at Their Peak

How to Select Vegetables at Their Peak

There are a lot of people out there who don't like vegetables, but I would contend that that's because they haven't eaten any really good vegetables. I thought I hated tomatoes (okay, technically a fruit, but used mostly as a vegetable) until I ate some fresh from a garden. One bite of a juicy, ripe heirloom tomato made me realize that I love tomatoes—it's those bland, mealy supermarket tomatoes that I hate.

Most corporate farms grow produce that's harvested before it's ripe, looks uniform, and travels well in refrigerated trucks. While those identical bunches of pale-green broccoli may look nice stacked up, they're usually pretty tasteless. If at all possible, get to a farmer's market (the USDA has a great search engine here) or sign up for a CSA delivery/pickup box.

CSA (community supported agriculture) usually have produce boxes at amazing values. Image via Dirt and Veggies

If you've read our guide to buying really good fruit, you know that while looks do matter, there are secrets to finding the sweetest and ripest fruit around. But things are a little different for veggies, so read on to discover the tricks you need to know for choosing great greens, peppers, and so on.

Weight: Heavier Equals Tastier

Like fruit, the heavier a vegetable is (especially relative to its size) is a good sign. It means it's retained a lot of water and therefore usually has a lot of flavor. With any vegetables that are high in sugar, like carrots or corn (although the latter is technically a grain), feeling hefty is a sign that they vegetable has a lot of sweetness. So pick up that kohlrabi and heft it before you buy. It should feel substantial, not puffy and weightless.

Just because a veggie is huge doesn't mean its heavy compared to its size. Image by W. H. Martin/Agrarian Nation

Color: The Brighter & Richer, the Better

Caretenoids are types of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables that give them their depth of color. So a vividly green bunch of spinach, a deeply purple eggplant, and a richly red tomato (technically a fruit since it has seeds) are not only going to taste better, they're going to be better for you.

Nothing beats beets. Even the greens and stems can be eaten. Image via Sun Warrior

Stripes and variations in color shouldn't make you shy away from a tomato or a squash, though. On dark green vegetables like broccoli, cucumbers, and leafy greens, avoid specimens with yellow spots. That means they're too old or, in the case of broccoli, about to flower and shouldn't be eaten.

Size & Shape: Don't Automatically Reject Oddballs

In general, too large and too small vegetables don't have a lot of taste since they were most likely harvested too early or too late. Don't shy away from irregular or misshapen vegetables, though. They often have the best taste, or so says Brian Everett of Jacob Farms/Del Cabo Organics.

This curiously misshapen tomato just might be the best tomato you've ever had. Image via A Matt or Nat of Taste

Look for Compact Leaves, Layers, & Florets

For vegetables that come in dense layers or leaves, like artichokes, endive, celery, bok choy, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, fennel, or onions, check to make sure that the layers or leaves are dense and have grown close together.

This is also true of vegetables that have florets, like broccoli and cauliflower or even the tips of asparagus. Anything that's too spread out has probably lost a lot of moisture over time and is going to be tough and fibrous when you try to cook it.

These baby bok choy have got it going on. Image via Zen Guy

Seek Out Upright Leaves & Crisp Stalks

For heads of lettuce, leafy, dark greens and herbs, you want a general appearance of vibrant good health. Along with deep, rich color, make sure the leaves are fresh with no curly, droopy, or wilted edges. The stalks should look as if they would break cleanly, with an audible snap. This is also true of green and yellow beans.

This kale is in top-notch shape and should be eaten ASAP. Image via lucienutrition

Be sure to check the very ends of the stems and the bottoms of the lettuce: if they have ragged brown edges, those vegetables have been on display for too long. Pass.

Smooth, Firm Skin: Always a Plus

The texture and quality of the skin is key for any vegetable, from mushrooms to bell peppers or eggplant. You want smooth, firm skin. Nothing should feel slimy, spongy, or soft. Stay away from produce that has broken skin, since they'll rot faster.

Check out the taut, unblemished skin on those yellow tomatoes and bell pepper. Image via Propsect: the Pantry

Root Vegetables: No Softies Here, Please

For onions, carrots, radishes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, or any other root vegetable, you don't want any softness or soft spots. The root should be hard to the touch.

If the root vegetables like carrots or radishes have their green leaves and tops attached, check the color and resiliency of the leaves. If the greens are wilty and aged looking, pass up those vegetables. Don't worry about little blemishes or nicks in the skin unless they're soft or bruised.

The vibrant color of the carrots and their greens indicate that these veggies are at their peak freshness. Image via Happy Gourmand

Aroma: Fresh & Earthy Is Good, Fetid & Dank Is Bad

Vegetables should smell earthy and fresh. If you can close your eyes, sniff something, and identify it as a carrot or corn by smell alone, that's a great sign. This doesn't work well at the supermarket, since most of the produce has been refrigerated since it was harvested and that stunts aroma.

If you sniff something and it smells a little "mildewed basement-y," as my gardener friends like to put it, you probably want to pass.

These veggies are in a root cellar, which is okay as long as they don't smell "mildewy.". Image via Tiny Farm Blog

Containers: Always Check the Bottom

It's always preferable to buy fruit and vegetables that are loose rather than prepackaged, but if you are buying something that's in a plastic bag or container, always, but always, hold it up and inspect it from all sides. My mother insisted on doing this every single time, and while it was a pain, it saved us from many a moldy bunch of green beans or a rotten sprout that was about to spoil the whole bag.

These sprouts may look delicious, but one rotten leaf could make things go bad real quick. Image via To Live & Diet in L.A.

If you have a specific vegetable you're curious about, be sure to check out the USDA's guide to buying fresh vegetables. It's got buying tips broken down from asparagus to watercress.

Cover image via dboy/Flickr

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