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Here's why buying the ripest produce isn't always best

Russ Parsons
The California Cook

We all want to shop for the ripest fruit we can find. Or do we? In some cases, the ripest fruit is not the best buy. In fact, in some cases it should be avoided.

To understand why, we first need to delve into the complexities of ripeness and maturity. And while we’re at it, let’s think a little about climacteric fruits.

Ripeness and maturity are separate but linked processes. Think of it this way: Maturity is when the fruit has assembled all the building blocks necessary to create flavor; ripeness is the process by which those blocks are assembled into something greater. When fruit is maturing, it's developing sugar as well as all the chemical compounds that will eventually make it delicious. 

Ripening is a little more complicated — it's a bell curve that begins with hard green fruit and ends with rot. During that process, the cell walls of the fruit soften, allowing the various separated chemical compounds to mingle, turning what was once simple flavor into a perfume that's much more complex and grand.

Some fruits mature and ripen at the same time. Citrus, berries, cucumbers and grapes, for example, will only ripen while they’re on the plant. 

But other fruits — apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, some melons and tomatoes — will continue to ripen after they’ve been picked. We call these climacteric fruits (this is a rough outline; botanists take a somewhat more nuanced view).

This is important because one key part of the ripening process for most fruits is softening. And with softness comes vulnerability. Fruit that is completely ripe is fragile and can be damaged very easily. 

So there you are at the farmers market, pawing through a wooden bin full of peaches. You’re probably not the first to do this and besides, someone had to dump them in there in the first place. 

Do you want a piece of fruit that is perfectly ripe at that moment? There’s a very high probability that it is going to be beat up and bruised. 

On the other hand, if you’re willing to wait a day or two, you can pick a piece of fruit that may feel firm now — and thus is much less likely to be damaged — but that nevertheless will become fully ripe without you having to do anything.

There are ways you can speed up the ripening of climacteric fruit (put it in a paper bag, add an apple or banana), but if left alone at room temperature, the fruit will take care of itself. 

One big caution — ripening of climacteric fruit stops when the fruit is chilled. So store them at cool room temperature, not in the refrigerator.

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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