Picking At The Peak

80 expert tips and techniques for selecting the freshest, ripest produce, from your garden or at the market.

By Matt Ernst

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Beans Pay attention to your pods. Fresh, juicy, bright green pods indicate tasty broad, lima, and green shell beans. Snap beans should snap easily and have crisp pods with pliable tips.

  • Harvest full-size snap bean pods before the beans begin to bulge.
  • Pick daily for a continuous supply.
  • Fresh tastes best—harvest beans right before you use them.

Broccoli and Cauliflower
Crucifers need to chill out for the best flavor. Pick them in the morning, cool them down immediately with ice or ice water, and then refrigerate, says Helen Harrison, Ph.D., professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin.

  • Harvest compact, white, smooth cauliflower heads.
  • Select blue-green broccoli heads and harvest them before the small, yellow flower buds open.
  • Leave the small leaves on broccoli stems intact—they're very nutritious.

Cabbage
Cut cabbage heads off the stalk when they feel solid and hard to the touch.

  • Want to keep mature cabbage in the ground a bit longer? Pull or twist the heads to break off some of the feeder roots and limit water uptake, and they will be less likely to split.

Carrots
Here's a crop that can get better with age. Sugars increase in growing carrot roots for up to four months. This means tasty carrots can be harvested well into autumn in most areas. "You do have to watch out for splitting when it's real hot and dry or when it's too wet," says Pete Cashel of Terrapin Hill Farm Organics, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

  • Dig full-size varieties when roots are ½ to 1 inch in diameter.
  • Harvest storage carrots just before heavy frosts.
  • Avoid selecting cracked or split carrots when buying at farmers' markets, says Cashel. They often have a bitter rather than sweet flavor.

Sweet Corn
Sweet corn—one of summer's most perishable crops—tastes best fresh from the garden (we're talking minutes here) and dripping with butter. If you can't prepare it directly after harvest, cool the ears on ice and then refrigerate them.

Harvest sweet corn about three weeks after the first silks appear. You'll know the corn is ready when the ears fill to the end with kernels and the silks and green husks become dry. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels.

  • Snap off sweet corn ears with a quick push, pull, and twist downward.
  • For a taste of summer in winter months, you can freeze sweet corn on the cob. Blanch and freeze right after harvest.

Cucumbers
Frequent harvesting of cucumbers helps the vines produce new fruit. Why? Because one actively growing cucumber needs 40 percent of the plants photosynthetic output, says research from North Carolina State University.

  • Pick bright green, firm slicing cucumbers when they reach 6 to 9 inches long.
  • Detach cucumbers from the vine with a quick, upward snap.
  • Quickly remove and compost any yellow, puffy, overripe fruit.
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