There are a whole lot of frustrated home cooks out there. And I see YOU! The meal planning, time and effort, cleaning up and cleaning up again… only to be met with dissapointment. Maybe you’re wondering- Where’s all the flavor? Why doesn’t this taste like when I eat at insert fav restaurant? Before you get discouraged or feel like you’re wasting time in the kitchen…read on. Your solution may be as simple as upping your produce game!
In this post, we’re gonna spend a moment chatting about one of my favorite ingredients- quality produce. Unfortunately, I feel like most people treat this an afterthought. We just randomly select a green pepper and toss a melon in the cart hoping and praying they’ll be delicious. They should all be the sameish, right?
You can do more than hope and pray. Promise!
With these 5 helpful tips, you’ll be on your way to elevated flavor with no additional effort. If that sounds like a plan, let’s do this. I’ve also loaded a few other Kitchen Basic How Tos for your encouragement! You CAN cook. You might just be missing some basics and I’m here to help you get that squared away!
Tip 1. Seasonal Produce
I’m starting here because this is probably the most obvious and easy upgrade of all. Watermelon doesn’t grow in the USA in January. It just doesn’t. Citrus peaks in winter in the USA, and you’ll never have a better tasting orange or grapefruit than in the month of December.
While I’m aware we live in a global economy, accounting for travel, shelf life, and the added preservatives etc from another region immediately diminishes the overall experience of said produce. For my coffee snobs out there… this would be equivalent to drinking a roast from 3 months ago. For my chocolate snobs… this would be equivalent to eating a chalky coated bar. Sure, we could drink the stale coffee and eat the fat separated chocolate BUT why? If you have a choice.
So… how does one easily find all of this “what’s in season” information? I wouldn’t leave you hangin. I’m about to drop the most amazing resource for those of you who live in the states. Meet the Seasonal Food Guide. A magical place where you can select your state and time of year, and BOOM- dozens of seasonal produce are brought up for your viewing pleasure! As if that wasn’t enough… give any one of those displayed produce images a click and you’ll be able to do a deep dive into the what, why, and how which also includes recipes and selection tips! I told you it was magic.
Tip 2. Locally Sourced Produce
In an ideal world you’d be looking to diversify your meals/menu around locally grown produce. But I get it. We don’t live in an ideal world, and Lord knows I’ve been guilty of buying strawberries in November!
Not sure where to start? Search for “farmers markets near me” OR look up “farms near me”. Markets can range from just one to dozens per city. Some farms sell their produce directly to the public and bypass the market… think apples, peaches, cherries, pumpkins, etc. If you have no idea what’s around you, figuring out what’s around you is the BEST place to start.
I will put a disclaimer here. Just because you are going to a farmers market doesn’t mean you are getting locally (I consider regional to be local as well). Chiquita bananas with the sticker still on? Pineapple being sold in Wisconsin? Sweet corn being sold in Georgia in March? Refer back to above Seasonal section for reference. Once you know what’s seasonal for your area, you’ll be able to spot farmers who… well… aren’t farmers. Look for “local” signage or information on WHAT farm the produce is coming from. And never be afraid to ask where their farm is located and what was grown there! Real farmers are often stoked to share and connect with their customers!
How cute would this tote be filled with fresh flowers, carrots, a loaf of bread and some farm fresh eggs?! Carry in your hand or use the longer straps wear like a backpack... that's right. A BACKPACK.
At The Grocery
Many major groceries have started to partner with local farms in an effort to diversity their offerings. Typically these items, whether they’re jams and jellies or blueberries and kale, are clearly labels as LOCAL and include the city, region or specific farm they’ve been sourced from. This goes for meat, coffee, beer and wine too! Not sure if your grocery offers these options? Swing by their customer service for a breakdown on what’s offered when, who they’re partnering with, and how those items are labeled in store.
Tip 3. Can You Smell It?
This is one of those wildly underrated tips. Green peppers should smell like peppers. Cantaloupe should smell like cantaloupe. Peaches like peaches and strawberries like strawberries. You get the drift. For anything with a softer skin, flavor filled produce will SMELL. If you don’t smell anything, put it back. It’s going to taste just like it smells. Nothing.
Which means it was either out of season, over watered, sprayed with so many pesticides the dang thing forgot what it was, of just plain not good. We’ve all grabbed for a slice of watermelon that disappointed with it’s flavorless juice. I’m convinced no one actually enjoys eating bland food. So let’s stop eating bland food.
Speaking about watermelon, we’re talking about a skin that’s too thick to really smell. So what are you to do when you can’t use the smell test on the produce you’re hoping to purchase? There’s really nothing Google or YouTube can’t hook you up with these days. But since I brought up watermelon, I’ll drop a few tidbits for you below:
I wasn’t originally planning on a section just for watermelon but here we are! And it’s probably because I’ve had my Watermelon Coconut Slushies on repeat recently and I can’t help but keep talking about it LOL (yes I still lol, I’m a 90s kid who was an actual kid in the 90s (important tidbit there) complete with a walkman, dial up internet and present at the birth of the lol)
One of the first things I look for in a watermelon is dark green stripes that are evenly spaced with a paler yellow in between. This means the watering was consistent while not being overwatered, which typically means you won’t end up with a waterlogged melon. Another quick go to is finding the field spot, which is just the discolored spot where the melon sat on the ground while growing. This spot would be a deeper yellow. If it’s white or light yellow PASS.
Finally, and my absolutely favorite way to finalize my melon selection. The thump. If you give your proposed melon a good whack near your ear a ripe and ready melon will sound deep and hollow. Thumbs up, and chances are you’re ready for the melon of your life. The deep hollow sounds comes from there being a sufficient amount of sweetened water. If it’s just a dull thud… PASS. You’re fixin to end up with a bland, underripe hunk of fruit that no one in your family will enjoy. And there you have it! PS I find the method of the thump to be equally effective with cantaloupe as well 🙂
A Good Knife is Your Best Friend
When working in the kitchen, in any capacity, it’s SUPER important that you have a quality chefs knife. And that it’s sharp. Dull knives are the ones that slip and slice the wrong bits. Because I remember how overwhelming learning about knives was a few years ago and how intimidating it was going through the purchasing process with a limited budget… I put together a Kitchen Knives Essentials that covers what you need to know. Including care, storage, sharpening and more. If you’re in the market, or think you might be in the market soonish you’ll want to make sure to stop on by that post.
Even though I LOVE this knife, I'd encourage you to read by Kitchen Basis How To on Knives before purchasing any knife 🙂 Even one that I love!
Limes and Lemons
Other produce items that can be difficult to select, especially when we tend to use them year round in cooking, baking and drinking, are limes and lemons. As the price of these babies continues to rise, how can you be sure to score a juicy one? I’ve settled on the squeeze. If a lime or lemon has ZERO give it’s hella dry inside. And I know you know what I’m talking about. Slice that sucker open and a what seems like only a few drops pop out. Not cool. I promise, try snagging a lime or lemon with some give when you squeeze it and compare how much more juice it provides. You’ll never grab another hard lime again.
This babe comes in handy for all things citrus, especially if you are a fan of pulp. You'll be able to whip up my margs, salad dressing, or mango salsa in seconds.
OF COURSE there are thicker skinned varieties of lemons this might not work on. A variety I constantly look for is Myer. Some of the tougher skinned lemons are harder to judge! It’s something you’ll just have to give a go and play around with.
Tip 4. When Will You Use
When purchasing produce keep in mind when you are hoping to use said produce. We’ve all thrown away a head of slimy lettuce. Or purchased a rock hard avocado for tonights dinner that was just a solid NO. A lot of cooking “mistakes” are made right here! Being aware of what goes bad when, and when you actually plan on using said produce will help you avoid unnecessary waste and utter disappointment in the flavor department.
Typically greens go quickly. That fresh head of lettuce you just scored form the market? Yah. Get on that. Eat it in the next 2-3 days.
Avocados. I tend to purchase these ahead of schedule. A hard avocado kept on the counter can be monitored and consumed at the optimal time. Typically ready in 4-5 days if firm. Need a longer shelf life? Drop it in the fridge for another week, sometimes two, of shelf life.
Keep in mind picking the best produce and then using that produce in a timely manner gets easier with practice as you learn to be more mindful. You WILL trash another round of slimy cilantro, shriveled green onion, and moldy blueberries. DO NOT beat yourself up. Just take note as to why and see how you can make some shifts to avoid that mistake in the future! Every little step adds to the journey. And when you combine the selection and use of produce correctly… even the most simple of 3 ingredient recipes will blow your mind. I don’t lie.
Tip 5. Properly Storing Produce
This could be it’s entire own blog post. I should probably get on that! While I won’t keep you here for another thousand words, I do have a handful of hacks that help me make the most of carefully selected produce. If you have any experiences, tidbits, suggestions or insights on anything produce related I’d LOVE for you to drop them in the comments below!
Here’s a short list of produce you’ll want to keep on the counter and NOT the fridge: tomatoes, corn, hard skinned squash (butternut, delecata (my personal favorite), acorn), potatoes of any kind, melons (until they are cut), stone fruit (think peaches, plums), pineapple, bananas and a bunch others. Here’s a well rounded list with reasons as to why.
In The Fridge
Now we’re to the fridge part. Which is EPIC. Honestly, one of the most comprehensive breakdowns of produce storage in the fridge is available here. Where everything from which shelf of the fridge to how air flow effects ripening to what not to store together to avoid premature spoiling. This makes me double think making my own post, but I know I have more to add… my own spin and experiences to share as it were. But in the meantime, this landing page will get you what you need to know now in order to get the most bang for your buck while getting the most bang on your palate. Now that’sssssss the sweet spot right there 😛
PS Where you live effects a whole lot. For example: When I lived in Florida I could never keep butter on the counter… it would melt even with the AC blasting LOL So I got used to keeping it in the fridge. And, it’s only after 6 years further north that I leave my butter on the counter. Room temp works if you live in a state that’s not 100 degrees 9 months of the year. Clearly take all this with a grain of salt wink wink
These are so handy! Grew up with my mom using one, and when it comes time to replace my simple butter dish, this will be the one I snag. It's important to note that you should change the water in the base at least once a week. The water makes an airtight seal and you can serve straight from the top!
Get To It!
Which one of these tips do you feel like trying out first? I can’t wait to hear if you found this helpful and how these tips have positively impacted the flavors of your current dishes! I know when I started to shift my focus from fancy recipes to quality ingredients… everything changed. And I’m positive the SAME will happen for you. Drop your thoughts down below!
While you’re at the sharing and commenting, please Save to Pinterest or Share on Facebook. I need all the support I can get to keep on growing this dream of mine. A place where practical beats perfect- and simple, delicious food is a lifestyle. A place where together, we can begin filling homes and tables with joy.
Hugs, because handshakes are awkward~
Thank you for this post! It was chock full of great info, but especially the magical Seasonal Food Guide tool. I’m definitely bookmarking that one!
Right?! That Seasonal Food Guide tool is the jam. It makes finding relevant information a breeze and navigating farmers markets a lot less overwhelming. So glad you found it as helpful as I have!
This was so helpful. I didn’t know cisitrus peaks in the winter!! Now I’ll buy all those in winter time. I assumed it was summer.
Such great info, especially with summer and produce season being upon us in full force. I’ve lived in watermelon country most of my life and had no idea how to pick out a perfectly ripe one. Thank you for sharing!
You got it. I know you’ll be floored when you snag one this way and crack it open. Like… it makes such a big difference. And you rock for such encouraging words! I will stand by- good food makes good food, all the day long.