the Time Is Ripe:
Harvesting Vegetables for Best Flavor
By guest author Alice Formiga
All fruits and vegetables have ways of
telling us exactly when they taste best, even before we’ve picked
them. As I was picking blackberries this morning, I found myself
explaining to my 2-year-old how to select the darkest and fattest
ones that fall off easily into your hands. Learning to recognize
these signs takes practice, however. Even the most experienced
gardeners might need several tries before they can capture that
brief moment between the time a not- quite- ready melon tastes bland
and when it is sickeningly overripe. Just yesterday, I picked my
first tomato of an heirloom variety that I hadn’t grown for several
years. I’d forgotten how deep a shade of orange it eventually
becomes and picked it too yellow —it tasted sour and nothing like the
wine-like sweetness I remembered.
Many factors affect flavor in your vegetables: seed variety, soil
type, temperature, season, amount of water, sunlight, and whether
they are grown outdoors or in a greenhouse. At harvest time,
however, the most important things to consider are time of day, and
ripeness. The following harvesting information should help you pick
your vegetables when they are at their best.
In summertime, the farmers at our local market get up well before
sunrise to start picking as soon as there’s enough light to see. Now
I'm not much of an early bird, but it's true that with few
exceptions, vegetables are best harvested in the cool morning hours
so that they stay crisp and store longer . If harvested too late,
they become limp and wilt quickly, having evaporated much of their
moisture and absorbed the midday heat. This is especially important
for leafy greens like lettuce, chard and fresh herbs such as parsley
and basil. It also applies to crisp fruiting vegetables like peas,
and anything in the cabbage family like broccoli and radishes.
If a morning harvest is impossible
to fit into your schedule or lifestyle, pick in the evening after the heat of
the late afternoon sun has begun to wane. Other fruiting vegetables, such as
tomatoes, peppers and zucchini are less sensitive to wilting, so they can be
picked later in the day. So can root vegetables like carrots, but make sure to
get them out of the sun and into the refrigerator quickly, particularly if the
weather is warm.
for ripeness involves all the senses: from tapping and smelling melons to
puncturing corn kernels and recognizing the perfect plumpness of a pea! After
enough practice and plenty of tasting, you’ll find that your hands learn to find
beans of the perfect thickness on their own.
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Beans: Pick string beans when they have grown to size and are crisp but
still slender, before the seeds begin to swell in the pods. As the seeds grow
larger, the pods become tough and stringy. For this reason, beans must be picked
every other day at the minimum. Frequent picking also encourages the plants to
keep producing more beans.
Beets: Pick baby beets at 1-1/2” in diameter and let some grow
larger. For best flavor in hot weather, keep beets well watered and
don’t leave them in the ground so long that they become pithy or woody.
Broccoli: Harvest broccoli in the morning, when the heads are
large and fully developed. The buds should be tightly closed; they
eventually start to expand and open into yellow flowers, but if you wait
until that point, your broccoli will be tough and woody. Cut the plant
about halfway down the stalk to encourage the continual production of
side shoots. Keep plants well watered to prevent them from developing a
bitter or sulphuric taste. The best tasting broccoli is produced in cool
Carrots: Pull carrots after they’ve developed a rich orange or
yellow color, depending on the variety. If your Carrot tops break off
when you pull them, try loosening the soil first with a digging fork.
Baby carrots can be picked when they are ½” thick. Pick round carrots
when they are 1-1 ½” in diameter.
Chard: Harvest the outer leaves of chard when the plants are
sturdy and well established. Be sure to leave four to six leaves so that
the plant can continue to grow and produce more leaves throughout the
summer. Chard will also overwinter in mild areas where the ground does
not freeze hard.
Corn: Corn is ready when the ears become rounded at the base and
the silks at the top turn dark brown but haven’t yet dried out. Peel
back the ear to expose the cob and puncture a kernel with your
fingernail. If the kernels are fat and juice is milky -white, the ear is
ready for eating. For best results, pick and shuck corn ears close to
the time you want to eat it, Sugar enhanced varieties keep their
sweetness longer -- convenient if you can’t eat all your ripe corn at
Cucumbers: Harvest English and Middle Eastern cucumbers when
they’ve grown to size, the skin is smooth and glossy and the seeds are
small. Don’t wait too long--bigger is not better in cukes-- and pick at
least every other day, since overmature cucumbers become bitter and
unpleasantly seedy. Frequent picking also increases production of new
fruits. Harvest lemon cucumbers when they are light green with just a
blush of lemon color—they taste less crisp and much too seedy if you
wait until they turn bright yellow.
Eggplant: Pick eggplants when they have grown to size and are
smooth and shiny. They taste most delicate and least bitter when they
are still young, before the skins toughen and the seeds mature and
darken inside. To avoid damaging the easily breakable plants, be sure to
cut the fruits from the branches, rather than trying to pull off the
Fennel: Cut bulbing fennel at soil level when the bulbing base
becomes knobby and rounded and about ¾ the size of a tennis ball or
larger . After harvesting each bulb, cut the ferny leaves down to the
stalk, then slice up the juicy bulb to use fresh or cooked.
Salad and Stir- Fry Greens: Mixed greens such as mesclun salads
,stir fry greens or lettuce mixes can be picked as tiny 2” baby
thinnings. Otherwise, use the "Cut and Come Again" method: wait until
the young plants are just 4-7” tall: then cut across the whole bed with
a scissors to harvest, leaving the bottom 1 to 2 in. of plants in the
soil. Water well, and fertilize lightly. The cut crowns of the plants
will regrow for successive harvests. These mixed greens can sometimes
taste bitter after several cuttings, particularly in very hot weather,
so make successive sowings every few weeks for a constant supply of
tender young leaves. Spicier leaves like arugula, taste mildest in cool
spring or fall weather.
Endive and Escarole: Plant these greens in mid to late summer for
a fall harvest. Cut whole heads of endive and escarole when they begin
to fill with lighter leaves in the center. Some gardeners tie or
rubberband the outer leaves around the center and leave them closed for
about a week to blanch and sweeten leaves inside. Cold-weather makes
these leafy greens even more crispy-sweet and succulent
Radicchio: Cut the inner heads of radicchio in late fall before a hard
frost when they are firm, round and colored deep red and white. If you
pick them too early when leaves are still red and green, they will taste
Kale: You can start picking the outer leaves of kale when the
plants are sturdy and well established. Be sure to leave seven or eight
leaf crowns to regrow after harvest.
Leeks: Harvest tender baby leeks when they are about ½-1”
thick or continue to let them thicken. Make sure to pick them before
they begin to send up a flowering stalk, or else they’ll be much too
tough to eat. Keep leeks well weeded, watered and fertilized, and hill
up the soil around the base for a longer, blanched white shaft, which is
more delicate than the tougher green upper leaves.
Lettuce: Pick lettuce in the cool early morning while they
leaves are still crisp. Lettuce can be harvested as delicate baby
greens, or as crisp, full-bodied heads. To harvest by the "Cut
and Come Again, " method, cut with a scissors when lettuces
reach about 4-5 inches tall to about 2” above the soil line. Water well
and fertilize lightly to enjoy several additional cuttings. Harvest
whole heads of lettuce when they start to fill in at the center but
before they begin to elongate at the center and "bolt" (send up a
flower stem), at which point they’ll taste bitter.
Melons: The perfection of a melon is so fleeting, that finding a
perfectly ripe melon every time is a fine art. Pay close attention when
picking so you learn what factors indicate the tastiest fruits. If you
consistently have trouble growing tasty melons in your area, it may be
that your climate is too cool. Grow them on black plastic or over a rock
wall, and experiment with different varieties to find the best for your
Cantaloupes: Pick when they heavy and tan-colored with a slight
yellowish cast. When ripe, a cantaloupe’s netting becomes harder and
raised, and a crack forms around the stem where it touches the fruit.
The melons should slip easily off the vines with a quick pull, but
should not have already fallen off. The fruits get slightly softer at
the bottom end and they smell fragrant.
Honeydews should have a slight yellow blush on their ivory rinds when
ready. They also get slightly softer at the blossom end. Unlike
muskmelons, honeydews do not slip off at the stem so must be cut from
Galia melons turn from green to a golden color on the surface of the
fruits and smell fragrant.
Watermelons develop a dull green cast and have a light patch at
the bottom that changes from green to light yellow when mature. Also,
the leaf on the tendril nearest the fruit turns brown and withers. The
skin should be hard--difficult to pierce with a fingernail. Some people
say they can knock on a melon to detect a perfect hollow tone.
Onions: Pick young scallions when they are 10-12” tall. For large
storage onions, wait until about half the topshave started to die back
and have fallen over. Knock the remaining tops over and let them stay in
the ground for another week. Harvest and store in a cool, dry, airy
place. Cut off the tops and shorten the roots when the skin and tops are
Peas: Pick peas in the morning at least every other day for
maximum harvest and crispest texture.
Shelling Peas: Pick them
when the pods are rounded and the peas have filled the pod--but before
they grow too large and tough.
Snap Peas: Wait until the
flat edible pods begin to grow rounded, plump and juicy—but before the
peas inside get too big and tough. You’ll notice that the pods will not
taste sugary enough if the pods are picked too early and flat.
Snow Peas: Pick them when
the pods have grown to size but are still quite flat.
Peppers: Sweet peppers taste much sweeter and are most
nutritious when they’ve been allowed to fully color up from green to
glowing red, orange or yellow on the vine, depending on variety. If your
growing season is too short for peppers to ripen completely, pick your
last green peppers as late as possible and keep in a cool place to color
up, checking them often for rotting. Chile peppers also develop their
full pungency and fruitiness when fully colored, but can be harvested
shiny green as soon as they’ve grown to size.
Pumpkins and Squash
Pumpkins: Harvest pumpkins when the fruits are deep orange and the
shells are so hard that they can’t be pierced with a fingernail. Cut a
2-3” stem handle, let cure for 10 days in the sun or a warm, dry room
(do not expose to frost) and store in a cool, dry place at around 50
Summer Squash: Smaller is
better when it comes to summer squash. The longer the fruits remain on
the vine, the tougher on the outside, seedier and more watery they
become on the inside. Even the most ardent zucchini bread bakers will
probably not want to grate and freeze too many baseball-bat sized
fruits! So pick zucchini no larger than 6 or 7". Pick patty pan squash
at 2-3”, round zucchini at 3-4", and longer trombetta squash at 12-14".
Winter Squash: Pick winter
squash when rind is deeply colored and the shells have become so hard
that you can’t pierce them with your fingernail. Cut a 2-3” stem handle,
let cure for 10 days in the sun or a very warm room (do not expose to
frost) and store in a cool dry place at around 50 degrees. Some
varieties which store less well such as acorn squash should be consumed
in the fall; the flavor and texture of many other varieties such as
Kubocha and Butternut improves in storage.
Radicchio: Cut the inner heads of radicchio in late fall before a
hard frost when they are firm, round and colored deep red and white. If
you pick them too early when leaves are still red and green, they will
taste quite bitter.
Spinach: Spinach grows
best in cool weather. To harvest by the " Cut
and Come Again, " method, cut young spinach when it is about 5-6” tall to
about 1” above the soil line and plants will regrow for another cutting.
Or you can start harvesting outer leaves as soon as the plants have at
least 5-6 full-size leaves, always leaving at least four to five leaves
on the plant so it can regrow handily.
By harvesting frequently with one of these methods, you will extend the
period in which the plant produces leaves before it sends up a flower
stem and "bolts".
Tomatoes: For best sun-ripened flavor, pick tomatoes when they are
richly colored and have no trace of green on the skin. If, however, you
are experiencing alternately wet and dry weather and are concerned about
cracking of thin-skinned heirlooms, you can pick them when they are just
blushed with color and let them ripen indoors (not in the refrigerator).
Tomatoes taste best where days and nights are warm—otherwise delicious
varieties can taste bland where nights are cool or in years when the sun
refuses to shine! For best flavor and texture, do not store ripe
tomatoes in the refrigerator. (I like to pile them in a big colorful
bowl or basket and use as a kitchen centerpiece).
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