Knowing how to choose the best produce, whether from the grocery store or the farmers market, is a skill passed down from parents to children. If they don’t pass it down, it skips that generation—and probably that family, forever. If your parents didn’t teach you the science of picking produce, here’s a primer.
One sign of freshness is a shiny skin. It can be faked by the application of wax, which also acts as a preservative. For the freshest produce, feel if the skin is tacky from wax. If so, it probably isn’t organic— and may not even be fresh.
Choose onions to be either onion-y sharp for roasting or sweet for slicing. The wider and flatter an onion is, the sweeter it is. That’s why most sweet Vidalias are shaped like flying saucers.
Lettuce can be deceptive. Grocers may strip off browned outer leaves, so check the stem. It should be flat with the leaves, and white. If it sticks out half an inch or more, especially if the stem is yellow or brown, the lettuce isn’t fresh; it’s merely had the rotting outer leaves stripped off. It can still serve for a salad—after all, unless fresh-picked, lettuce has little taste.
Tomatoes are much better from a farmers market, where they are picked when ripe, or at least starting to ripen. They should be red into the stem area and have some give to have more flavor than the hard, light-orange variety sold in chain stores.
Eggplants and peppers should have shiny skin and feel firm and heavy. The stem area is always a giveaway. If the pepper or eggplant is soft around the stem, it’s not fresh. Put more trust in carrots with the stem area intact. You can tell if the carrot is fresh by the color of the chopped-off stem.
The brighter the green, the fresher the carrot. As carrots age after being pulled, the stem turns brown. The same is true of nearly all vegetables.
Pass it on.