11 Tips from Chefs for Shopping at Farmers’ Markets
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.
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.
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.
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.