How to Spot the Best Berries, and 5 Other Expert Produce Shopping Tips
Spring is here, and that means a few things: The weather is getting warmer (a huge plus), seasonal allergies are starting up again (a big minus), and there’s a glut of seasonal produce filling up farmers markets and grocery stores.
With asparagus, rhubarb, berries, and more piling up in the produce bins, narrowing down which fruit and vegetables to tote home with you can be a little overwhelming. To ease our collective concerns, I asked four farmers, produce managers, and buyers for a few tips — after all, it’s their job to make sure us shoppers can find the freshest and most flavorful items around. Happily, they shared some insider information about when to shop, what to look for, and the one thing we shouldn’t be fooled by. Here are six of their best tips.
1. Berry size doesn’t matter. But color does.
Don’t let the size of berries, blue or any other color, fool you, explains Brian, a blueberry farmer and vice president at Naturipe Farms. Small to medium berries can be just as sweet as a big berry. In fact, it’s all about the color of the berry: “When it comes to picking the best produce, specifically berries, at the grocery store, color of the fruit is key,” he says. “The best berries will have full color — for blueberries, this is that deep blue, while blackberries should be jet black with minimal purplish-red cells. Shoppers will want to pick raspberries that are an almost orange red that look like they are about to burst.” And for strawberries, he recommends we look for a “true red” coloring “with an almost sparkle or shine on the fruit.”
2. Give the berry cartons a (gentle) shake.
Another way to judge which berries we should add to our baskets? Use our ears! “Shake the container,” says Brian. He recommends we listen to the noise the fruit makes when jostled around a bit. “If it rattles like marbles, it’s likely to be just what the shopper is looking for” — aka not moist or mush. Similarly, try flipping the container over to make sure nothing’s sticking to the bottom.
3. Give the bagged produce items a 360-degree review.
Beyond berries, you’ll want to give any and all packaged produce a thorough inspection. “This is particularly true with bagged greens,” says Merissa, produce buyer for Little House Living, who suggests we spin the bags around (and even upside down) to check for damage. It’s a quick and easy way to make sure we’re not walking away with items that are “wilted or too damp.” She also reminds us to “look at the contents and the bottom of the bag; if it is off-colored or seems wet, don’t buy it.”
4. Find out where the produce originates from.
Fact: The closer a fruit or vegetable is grown to its retail destination, the fewer miles it has to travel to get there. It also means, in general, it’s more ripe and ready to eat, explains Janelle, a produce manager at Safeway. “Products coming from very far away many times are shipped less ripe,” because, among other reasons, “damage can occur in transit.” She always looks for where the produce originated from. And if it’s not clearly labeled, ask a store employee, like Janelle, for more information.
5. Avoid shopping on Sundays and early Monday mornings, if you can.
There’s a reason you’d be hard pressed to find fully stocked produce departments on those days. “Produce deliveries from distributors do not occur on Sundays,” says Merissa. “And on early Mondays the shipments generally haven’t been rotated into displayed produce.” We still might be able to find everything we need, but chances are higher we’ll come across an empty shelf where the blueberries typically reside. “High-volume retailers get deliveries most other days of the week,” adds Merssia. Take things a step further and ask the store manager when it refreshes the produce section, as Janelle and Claire at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden suggests.
6. Keep a “what’s in season” chart in your kitchen or on your phone.
Several of the people I spoke with stressed the importance of buying in-season produce. They noted its high nutrient density and rich flavor and texture. It can also be less expensive and may even impact how you use them in recipes. Learn about what’s in season by chatting with producers at the local farmers market and grocery store produce clerks (the “all-knowing internet,” as Claire points out, is also a solid place to start), and then create a guide you can reference year-round. You can even opt for one of these stylish seasonal-produce calendars.
Are you a farmer or a produce manager? Tell us about some of your favorite shopping tips in the comments below.