Summer means it's salad season—when Americans' favorite fruits and vegetables are at their freshest and most delicious. In the spirit of ensuring that you always eat your veggies, here's a handy guide to choosing summer produce at peak ripeness.
You could peel down a piece of the husk for a peek at the kernels, but you risk the wrath of your fellow shoppers if you decide to put back an ear after it's been partially undressed. What else can you check without semi-husking your corn in the produce aisle? Plenty! First, the husk should be vibrant green and wrapped tightly around the cob. Check closely for any tiny brown holes near the top of the husk as those are worm holes—and a sign of the worms that make them. Don't get turned away by brown tassels sticking out the top—that's the color they should be. What you want to look out for are tassels that have turned black or gone from slightly sticky to all dried out, which indicates an ear that's less fresh. Finally, although you can't get a look at the kernels, give the ear a careful squeeze to get a sense for how plump and plentiful they are.
2. Bell Peppers
The first thing you'll notice about bell peppers is their vibrant color, which comes into play when selecting the right one. Green, yellow, orange, and red peppers are the same species—the red ones are just most mature. Of course, you can still eat the green ones, and, in fact, if you're not planning to use the peppers right away, consider that the less ripe green ones actually last a few days longer on the shelf. No matter the color, look for firm, shiny, unblemished peppers with wrinkle-free skin.
Arugula is known for its peppery, pleasantly bitter flavor. "Baby" arugula is just as "ripe" but often more tender and milder than fully grown leaves, and a better choice if you're looking for something a little bit more subtle. Things to avoid: holes or yellowing edges. And, if possible, seek out greens that come with their roots intact for greater shelf life.
If you're a stickler for freshness (and you are, since you're reading this article), seek out beets with the greens still attached—leaves show age more quickly than the purplish roots. Not all grocery stores leave the leaves on, however, so if you're dealing with just the beets themselves, avoid ones with any surface nicks or bruises and go for firm beets that are heavy for their size.
When it comes to cukes, nix anything with obvious blemishes or spongey spots. Cucumbers should be firm and dark green, but be wary of shiny skin as it means the outside has been rubbed with wax to help preserve it. This is fine if you plan to peel your cucumber, but if you prefer to eat the skin, look for one that's a duller hue. If you want to skip the wax issue altogether, choose Kirby, Persian, or plastic-wrapped English cucumbers (bonus: they're also more flavorful than the waxed type).
The best eggplants should feel heavy for their size and weigh less than 1.5 pounds. This is because the bigger an eggplant is, the more likely it is to taste bitter. In fact, smaller varieties like the Thai or Japanese eggplant will be even sweeter than the big purple ones you're used to. In addition to being the right size, ripe eggplants will be firm, with shiny and taut skin.
Bigger not meaning better applies to zucchini, too. The larger squashes will taste watery and flavorless, so don't go for anything bigger than an average flashlight. Yellow and even white zucchini can be just as ripe as green ones, as long as their skin is saturated and vibrant. If you're not planning on using it right away, look for zucchini with the stem still attached—the more stem that's left, the longer it will keep.
A version of this story was published in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.