How to Buy Produce (Even When It’s Out of Season)

With a few shopping tips, you can walk away with great produce options no matter what month you're picking up your ingredients.

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Produce, All Year Round

Buying tomatoes in the dead of winter isn't the recommended practice of most food professionals, but sometimes your BLT needs the tomato, stat — and it's not waiting for summer to arrive. Shopping out of season may conjure up images of engorged strawberries in November, but it can also mean eggplants and tomatoes for an eggplant Parmesan on a cozy winter night in. The reality for some supermarket shoppers is that they will buy produce during times when Mother Nature never intended it to be possible — sometimes at triple the cost, and possibly with a mealy texture reminiscent of soaked cotton balls. But when you're willing to take that gamble, here are a few tips to up your chances of walking away with a little taste of sunshine.

 

By Teri Tsang Barrett

Berries

When buying berries, look for bright, rich colors with smooth, unblemished skin. Discard any packages with puckered or wrinkled berries, a sure sign of age. Strawberries that are pale or rock-hard, or have a large white crown near the stem tend to be bland, with a crunchier, unripe texture. 

Inspect Root Vegetables (Tubers) for Firmness

Skin should feel smooth. Carrots should snap when bent. And for all root vegetables, there should be no soft spots, a likely indication of decay underneath the skin. 

Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and radishes should feel heavy and crisp to the touch. Examine for blemished, soft bits and cut away as needed. Fortunately, this family of vegetables stores well in the refrigerator crisper drawer and ages from the outside in. Peel or cut away any old, damaged outer layers, as the center may still be edible.  

Tomatoes and Stone Fruit

Tomatoes and stone fruit, including mangoes, should be firm with some give. The flesh shouldn’t be soft, a sure sign of a mealy, loose texture. Be wary of rock-hard fruits as well (yes, tomatoes are a fruit), as out-of-season fruit is less likely to ripen as expected, due to extreme storage conditions. 

Citrus, Melons and Pineapple

These fruits should feel heavy with water. The lighter the fruit, the less sweet juice running around inside.  

Eggplant and Mushrooms

Make sure these items feel heavy and firm. Both will dry from the inside quickly, resulting in a stringy texture for eggplant and a chewier one for mushrooms. 

Look for Dry, Crisp Salad Greens

The drier the greens, the longer they’ll stay fresh. Moisture trapped in a container or bag with greens tends to lead to rot.