How to Pick a Ripe Watermelon
Our top tips for picking and buying summer’s quintessential fruit, whether you're picking it fresh off the vine or off the grocery store shelf.
Watermelon is the quintessential fruit of summer, and biting into a juicy wedge is one of the season's greatest pleasures. But knowing when they are ready to pick from the vine or how to buy the best one can be a bit of a head-scratcher. If you’ve ever stared down a display of the giant green orbs at your local farmers' market or checked the status of one in the garden, you know how daunting it can be to know when one has reached peak ripeness. (And you might feel even downright silly knocking on them and listening for some sort of secret signal.) Here are tips for picking and buying watermelon straight from the pros who grow them, plus some of our favorite sweet and savory summer watermelon recipes.
Start With the Seed
There are many varieties of watermelons, but they fall into three broad categories which are determined by how long they take to grow and mature: early (65-days), mid-season (80-days) and full-season (90-days).
“Basically, when you plant the seed, it’ll have a gauge from seeding to harvesting,” explains Nick Augostini, who focuses on watermelons as part of his role as N.C. Department of Agriculture’s assistant director of marketing. “[Farmers] keep track of when the watermelons were planted and if it’s an 80-day variety, they might go out there on day 70 or day 75.”
Find the “Pig Tail”
According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, farmers look for the “pig tail” as a tell-tale sign that the melon is mature. A pig tail is the tendril coming out of the top of the melon; it starts out green and smooth, but once it turns brown and shrivels and curls up, thus resembling a pig’s tail, it means the melon is ready to be picked.
Farmers also flip the melon over and look at the side of the melon that’s been resting on the ground. They’re looking for the “ground spot” to have a cream-like, off-white color. If it’s still white, that means it’s “fresh,” or not ripe, and if it’s yellow, it’s over-ripe. If it’s a striped watermelon variety, both the dark and light green stripes will get lighter as the melon ripens. Even on a solid-green watermelon, the overall hue will lighten up a few shades as it ripens.
Shop like a Pro
Augostini recommends keeping these three tips in mind for selecting a watermelon that’s guaranteed to be ripe, juicy and sweet.
- Look – Examine the watermelon for imperfections, bruising or cuts on the exterior.
- Flip – Turn the melon over and look for a creamy color (not white and not quite yellow) on the underside.
- Lift – Pick up the melon to see how heavy it is. Melons are 90 to 92 percent water, so the heavier it feels for its size, the better and juicier the watermelon is going to be.
“Pick a couple of them up,” Augostini advises. “The heaviest one with a creamy color and no defects is the one I would buy.”
As for the thump test? Augostini explains that when the average shopper knocks on a melon, they’re unlikely to be able to determine whether it’s making a thud (ripe) or a hollow (unripe) sound. When he visits packing houses, workers who perform the thump test on melons on the same surface, day in and day out, are more likely to be able to discern if it’s ripe.
With those tips in mind, it's time to use your melon. Here are a few great recipes:
Made with a medley of watermelon, cucumber, mango, jalapeño, onion and basil, Trisha's salsa hits the sweet-savory-spicy flavor trifecta. It’s a natural match for tortilla chips but try it atop grilled fish or tucked into tacos, too. Pair with a pitcher of frozen watermelon margaritas.
This chilled tomato soup is extra refreshing thanks to the addition of juicy watermelon. It’s healthy, easy to make, and best of all, there’s no stovetop required.
Watermelon’s sweetness is tempered by an all-star cast of supporting players in Ina's salad: peppery arugula, salty feta and bright fresh mint leaves. It all adds up to a refreshing and satisfying 5-star summer dish.
Giada's colorful skewers are like summer-salad-on-a-stick. Watermelon cubes balance tangy cherry tomatoes while basil leaves add a touch of herbaceous freshness. Try packing them for your next picnic, toting them to a cookout or serving them as an elegant and easy summer entertaining app.