Picking at the Peak
You spend all season tending to the needs of your vegetable crops—feeding, weeding, watering, and handpicking pests—and then comes the moment of truth: Has the fruit of your labor reached its peak of ripeness? We asked vegetable experts and market growers to share their secrets for selecting perfectly ripe produce and keeping it fresh. Take this guide with you to the garden (or the farmers' market), and you will fill your basket with the most flavorful food possible.
The Science of Freshness
A fruit or vegetable's existence depends on respiration—a physiological process in which starches and sugars are converted into carbon dioxide, water, and other by-products. Respiration continues after harvest, diminishing the starches and sugars that add flavor. Moreover, at harvest, vegetables are removed from their main oxygen source: their roots. This means postharvest respiration may be anaerobic (occur without oxygen). In anaerobic respiration, starches and sugars are more likely to be converted into ketones, aldehydes, and alcohols than in aerobic respiration. These compounds hasten the death of plant tissue and decrease the quality and flavor of fruits and vegetables. Gardeners can manage respiration—and the freshness of their produce—by using proper harvesting, handling, and storage techniques.