This is the ultimate guide for anyone who’s ever been confused in the produce aisle, those needing some pointers, ingredient substitutions, or a refresher on how to buy the best produce.
I guess you could say my husband was the inspiration behind this guide. Since the pandemic hit, he’s been doing the grocery shopping, which has been a welcomed break for me. I do all the cooking and now, he does the shopping.
Which seems like a pretty sweet deal if you ask me.
His shopping trips usually involve several phone calls or texts with questions (and sometimes pictures), especially after he came home with the wrong ingredient.
You know how you get in the habit of doing something so much so that it seems obvious to you, and you automatically assume others know these same things, too?
Hint: They don’t.
“How do you know if it’s organic?”
“How the heck are you supposed to know what those stickers mean?”
“Did I do a good job on the mangos, or what?”
“The kale looks like sh*t, what do I buy instead?”
“Wait… what is dino kale?”
After buying produce and other groceries week in and week out for years… I’ve figured out a few things like:
- what to substitute if they don’t have my first choice
- how to tell what produce is ripe
- picking out the juiciest citrus fruit
- what produce to avoid, and so on
There’s a lot of information in this guide, so just pick and choose what’s helpful for you.
How to Determine What Produce to Buy
1. produce stickers
Produce stickers are only on select produce from the grocery store. You’ll see a small sticker on individual pieces of produce such as onions, apples, oranges, lemons, limes, bell peppers, avocados, tomatoes, zucchini, etc.
This number is called a PLU code (or a produce look up code). Grocery stores have used these codes for decades to determine the correct price and maintain better control over inventory.
The PLU code signifies a few things:
- the region it was grown (depending on how near or far, will determine its true freshness)
- the numbers on the code tell whether it was grown organically, conventionally, or genetically modified (GMOs)
- organic produce has a five-digit PLU code that begins with the number 9
- conventional produce has a four-digit PLU code that begins with the number 4
- genetically modified produce has a five-digit PLU code that begins with the number 8
2. seasonal produce
Eating seasonally or buying seasonal produce just means you’re buying produce that’s at its peak (flavor, texture, nutrients) during that specific season.
Which may have you thinking, “How do I know what’s in season?”
I like to use this example: Let’s say you live in the U.S. and you buy a watermelon in the middle of January. Is it going to taste as good as it tastes in the summertime on a hot day?
The answer is no. That’s because watermelon is in season in the summer (from May to September). When you buy produce that’s in season, its flavor has fully developed so it’ll have plenty of it.
A bonus is that eating seasonally is more affordable than buying produce out of season (which is why you’d pay a lot more for that watermelon in the middle of January).
You can also check out this seasonal produce guide to help you know what’s in season throughout the year.
3. how to know when produce is ripe
Fun fact: did you know that a green bell pepper is really just an unripe red bell pepper? This is why green peppers are much more bitter than red, yellow or orange bell peppers.
You know that feeling when you’ve been looking forward to a certain fruit for so long? You get home, cut into it and take a huge bite only to be left with utter disappointment.
Isn’t that the worst? Let’s not let that happen anymore.
How to know when fruit is ripe:
- watermelon – sounds hollow (I like to give it a couple of knocks), but feels heavy, has a yellowish patch on the skin
- canteloupe & honeydew melon – feels heavy, smells sweet, and has a slight give when you press around the inverted end
CITRUS (heavier = juicier)
- lemons – bright yellow, no green
- limes – light green or yellow-green (need to ripen further if dark green)
- Meyer lemons – their skin is dark yellow to orange, smaller than regular lemons
- oranges (all varieties) – firm, brightly colored skin
- strawberries – red, smell sweet, and no white near the stem
- blackberries – little hard to tell, but look for blackberries that have very little red in them and buy only frozen when not in season
- blueberries – deep blue with a light gray dusting
- raspberries – bright red color
- pineapple – feels heavy, smells sweet, has healthy-looking green leaves
- mangoes – slightly heavier than unripe ones, smell sweet and are soft to the touch
- bananas – lightly spotted peel
- tomatoes – the skin slightly gives
- avocados – the area under the stem is bright green (brown is overripe) and is slightly soft to the touch
- figs – soft to the touch, if too hard (unripe) they become astringent in your mouth
- apples – firm to the touch and their skin is tight
- pears – a few brown spots like bananas and smell sweet
- cherries – stems are still attached, deep hue, and firm
- peaches – slightly soft but still a little firm
- kiwi fruit – slightly soft when gently pressed, but not mushy
How to know when vegetables are ripe:
- pumpkin – hollow like a watermelon and woody stem
- corn – plump kernels and green husk (pull the husk back to check the kernels)
- cauliflower – heavy for its size and no gaps in the white parts
- sweet potatoes – firm, no mushy spots
- potatoes – no green, but make sure they’re firm
- alliums (onions, garlic, and shallots) – firm, mild smell, and no green roots growing
If you’re not planning on using the produce right away, you can buy it unripe and let it ripen on your countertop for a few days until ready to use.
4. what produce to avoid
You’re most likely already avoiding these produce items because the chances are if it smells bad, feels slimy, has soft spots or mold, common sense is going to tell you that it’s not the best option.
Just as a gentle reminder, this is the produce that you can stroll right on by
- if any fruit smells overly sweet (almost sickly), it means it’s overripe
- bruised, soft and/or rotten spots, brown or slimy leaves
- berries that are mushy and have mold (even if it’s not in the whole container)
- wrinkly skin (fine to still use if it’s in your fridge, but don’t buy it that way)
- vegetables that are browning, have a dry stem, off-colored leaves, leaves with holes
5. making produce substitutions
When making substitutions, you’ll want to substitute produce that has a similar flavor profile and texture. You can also use produce that comes from the same plant family when substituting an ingredient.
Garlic, onions and shallots are all in the allium family, so they have similar properties and flavor profiles (which is also why they work so well together).
- No shallots? Use yellow onion instead.
- No yellow onions? Get another variety – white, red, or sweet will typically work.
- No garlic? Use shallot instead. If it’s springtime (and you can find them), sub garlic scapes. You can also use garlic powder, just use a smaller amount than you would fresh.
- bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- green beans
- celeriac (also called celery root)
- sweet potatoes & yams
Pumpkins and winter squashes – different varieties can be used interchangeably