11 Tips from Chefs for Shopping at Farmers’ Markets

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Farmers’ markets are a summertime staple, just like corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, and watermelon—all of which you can find at a farm stand. Here, 11 chefs share their secrets for getting the best deals and produce fresh from the farm.

1. HEAD TO THE MARKET WITHOUT A LIST.

Bill Briwa, a New York chef and culinary instructor, advises shoppers to forgo the ingredients list. Since farmers’ markets provide seasonal, local fare that changes weekly—instead of grocery stores’ standard variety of shipped-in produce—your shopping should take a different approach. "Keep an open mind. You’re going to see some great produce here, but you may not know what it is just yet," Briwa says. "You’ll recognize it when you see it, and that’s when your menu planning should start."

2. BUDGET FOR SPONTANEOUS PURCHASES.

While it’s smart to set a budget for your farmers’ market excursion, don’t be afraid to set aside a few dollars for non-food purchases. Chef and food writer Gail Simmons suggests not spending all your budget at one place, instead leaving some wiggle room for unexpected finds like flowers or early-season fruits.

3. BE SUSPICIOUS OF NON-NATIVE PRODUCE.

Wooden baskets overflowing with colorful peppers.
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Lenny Russo—a St. Paul, Minnesota, chef—recommends understanding what’s grown near you to ensure you’re getting top-quality produce. "If you go to a market in a northern climate and see vendors selling oranges, you can go ahead and assume that these people are actually buying stuff from some sort of clearing house or packing house, and then reselling them," he says. If fresh, local fare is what makes your mouth salivate, avoid these vendors and opt for in-season produce.

4. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH FARM VENDORS.

Meeting area farmers is the best way know you’re getting truly local produce and products. Tamara Reynolds, chef and author of Forking Fantastic!, suggests building friendly relationships with the farm stands you frequent. You’ll learn about how your food is grown and harvested and also open the door for special requests or cooking advice. Plus, you’ll have the chance to share feedback (both good and bad) on the items you purchase.

5. AVOID IMPULSE BUYING.

Farmers’ markets allow you to select from a variety of heirloom and unusual produce varieties. So to avoid being overwhelmed, curate your purchases like a chef. Food Network chef Geoffrey Zakarian advises shoppers to just look for the first 30 minutes, ask for samples, then decide what’s worth purchasing. Taking a calm approach helps you avoid overspending and overbuying.

6. PRESERVE THE BEST DEALS.

Woman shopping for fruit.
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Top Chef competitor Sam Talbot suggests thinking ahead—like, way ahead—when you’re out shopping. If you’re skilled at preserving foods, take advantage of seasonal bounties when they come around. "I like to buy it fresh and preserve and pickle it all for winter pies for Christmas gifts," he says. Your future food cravings will thank you.

7. BARGAIN FOR UGLY OR BULK PRODUCE.

Many chefs agree that trying to bargain for lower prices as soon as the market opens just won’t work. But in some cases, you can score a deal on misshapen foods or large quantities. Brooklyn chef Matt Benero recommends chatting with vendors about how you’ll use the produce. If you're looking to can or preserve fruits and veggies, farmers may cut you a deal on ugly produce, bulk amounts, or produce they really need to get rid of.

8. DON'T DISREGARD NON-ORGANIC VEGGIES.

Selecting produce from certified organic vendors is one reason many people spend Saturday mornings at farmers' markets. But don’t just brush off market vendors that don’t have the certification; instead, ask how they grow their food. Chicago chef Stephen Wambach explains that some farms still follow organic practices but don’t carry the certification (a process that can be cost-prohibitive).

9. CUT DOWN FOOD WASTE WITH A SHOPPING ROUTINE.

Rows of fruit and vegetables at a farmers' market.
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Top Chef judge (and chef) Tom Colicchio advocates against food waste by only purchasing ingredients you’ll use that day (or soon after). Instead of stocking up for a week’s worth of meals, make shopping a daily task—a more viable option for regions with daily markets. "Put it into your routine, on the way home from work, hit the farmers’ market and get what you need for the night," Colicchio says. Plus, your fridge and counters won’t be overwhelmed by produce.

10. PICK PRODUCE BASED ON YOUR SCHEDULE.

It makes sense to buy the ripest produce on market day, right? Not if you’re waiting a few days for a special meal. Pace Webb, a Los Angeles chef who owns an invite-only supper club, suggests selecting ripeness by your meal plan: "For example, if you want avocados, ask the vendor to help you select a few 'for Thursday' so they won’t sell you ripe ones today." Don’t forget to ask the best way to store produce so that it’ll ripen to perfection.

11. KNOW HOW TO STORE YOUR FRESH FINDS.

Australian celebrity chef Curtis Stone warns against refrigerating fresh produce that will hold its own on the counter—particularly tomatoes, which taste best at room temperature. Avocados, peppers, apples, and stone fruits also usually do great outside the fridge, while leafy greens and vegetables keep best in a cold fridge drawer with tons of air circulation. And, always avoid storing fruits and vegetables together since the ethylene gas from fruits can speed along ripening of veggies. Even if there’s another market coming up, there’s no reason you shouldn’t fully enjoy your seasonal finds.

You Can Now Order—and Donate—Girl Scout Cookies Online

It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
Girl Scouts

Girl Scouts may have temporarily suspended both cookie booths and door-to-door sales to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be deprived of your annual supply of everyone’s favorite boxed baked goods. Instead, you can now order Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and all the other classic cookies online—or donate them to local charities.

When you enter your ZIP code on the “Girl Scouts Cookie Care” page, it’ll take you to a digital order form for the nearest Girl Scouts organization in your area. Then, simply choose your cookies—which cost $5 or $6 per box—and check out with your payment and shipping information. There’s a minimum of four boxes for each order, and shipping fees vary based on quantity.

Below the list of cookies is a “Donate Cookies” option, which doesn’t count toward your own order total and doesn’t cost any extra to ship. You get to choose how many boxes to donate, but the Girl Scouts decide which kinds of cookies to send and where exactly to send them (the charity, organization, or group of people benefiting from your donation is listed on the order form). There’s a pretty wide range of recipients, and some are specific to healthcare workers—especially in regions with particularly large coronavirus outbreaks. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York, for example, are sending donations to NYC Health + Hospitals, while the Girl Scouts of Western Washington have simply listed “COVID-19 Responders” as their recipients.

Taking their cookie business online isn’t the only way the Girl Scouts are adapting to the ‘stay home’ mandates happening across the country. They’ve also launched “Girl Scouts at Home,” a digital platform filled with self-guided activities so Girl Scouts can continue to learn skills and earn badges without venturing farther than their own backyard. Resources are categorized by grade level and include everything from mastering the basics of coding to building a life vest for a Corgi (though the video instructions for that haven’t been posted yet).

“For 108 years, Girl Scouts has been there in times of crisis and turmoil,” Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Sylvia Acevedo said in a press release. “And today we are stepping forward with new initiatives to help girls, their families, and consumers connect, explore, find comfort, and take action.”

You can order cookies here, and explore “Girl Scouts at Home” here.

Can't Find Yeast? Grow Your Own at Home With a Sourdough Starter

Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images
Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images

Baking bread can relieve stress and it requires long stretches of time at home that many of us now have. But shoppers have been panic-buying some surprising items since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to pantry staples like rice and beans, yeast packets are suddenly hard to find in grocery stores. If you got the idea to make homemade bread at the same time as everyone on your Instagram feed, don't let the yeast shortage stop you. As long as you have flour, water, and time, you can grow your own yeast at home.

While many bread recipes call for either instant yeast or dry active yeast, sourdough bread can be made with ingredients you hopefully already have on hand. The key to sourdough's unique, tangy taste lies in its "wild" yeast. Yeast is a single-celled type of fungus that's abundant in nature—it's so abundant, it's floating around your home right now.

To cultivate wild yeast, you need to make a sourdough starter. This can be done by combining one cup of flour (like whole grain, all-purpose, or a mixture of the two) with a half cup of cool water in a bowl made of nonreactive material (such as glass, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic). Cover it with plastic wrap or a clean towel and let it sit in a fairly warm place (70°F to 75°F) for 24 hours.

Your starter must be fed with one cup of flour and a half cup of water every day for five days before it can be used in baking. Sourdough starter is a living thing, so you should notice is start to bubble and grow in size over time (it also makes a great low-maintenance pet if you're looking for company in quarantine). On the fifth day, you can use your starter to make dough for sourdough bread. Here's a recipe from King Arthur Flour that only calls for starter, flour, salt, and water.

If you just want to get the urge to bake out of your system, you can toss your starter once you're done with it. If you plan on making sourdough again, you can use the same starter indefinitely. Starters have been known to live in people's kitchens for decades. But to avoid using up all your flour, you can store yours in the fridge after the first five days and reduce feedings to once a week.

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