The oppressive summer heat has been good for neither man nor beast. However, based on a number of gardeners with whom I have spoken, the dry summer has been great for developing high-quality, flavorful fruit in this year's melon crop.
Most gardeners have heard that thumping, plugging and smelling are all ways of determining whether melons are ripe for picking. Which method is the best, and which are just old wives' tales? Here is what you need to know about choosing a tasty melon from the garden, roadside stand or farmers market:
Watermelons, cantaloupe and honeydew melons are warm-season vegetables. The warmer and drier the weather, the better they grow. Bright, sunny days help sugars accumulate in the fruit as well as maintain a balance between fruit production and vine growth. The results are large melons full of sweet flavor.
But the trick is to find the ripe melons and pass by the ones that are not ready for eating. Thumping watermelons is a misleading test. If you thump watermelons to judge their ripeness, you may be disappointed. That was a fairly good sign years ago, but with today's varieties, about all thumping indicates is when a melon is seriously overripe. The only way to truly find the sweetest, field ripe melon is to plug it - take a core sample. The problem is that most retailers will not allow us to do that and if the melon is not ripe yet, cutting into the fruit will ruin it.
So in the garden, look for a dry tendril. When a melon has been attached to the vine long enough to be ripe, the tendril - or pig tail - that is attached to the vine closest to the stem of the fruit - will start to dry up and turn gray or brown. Likewise, look for a cream- or yellow-colored ground spot. As a melon ripens, the light-colored area where the melon rind rests on the ground will change from greenish to yellowish, indicating a parallel change of color for the flesh inside. But judging the ground spot on striped melons can be confusing and requires careful viewing.
A third test is to feel the rind or skin. Green watermelons have a very firm rind - lmost rock-hard. Overripe melons have a rind that actually will bend under firm pressure. The firmness of a perfectly ripe melon lies somewhere between rock-hard and bendable. Feel for a rind that gives slightly under firm thumb pressure but is not mushy.
Judging cantaloupe and honeydew ripeness can be tricky. Cantaloupes provide several signals that do not apply in all cases. Honeydews provide only one signal, and even it is unreliable. With cantaloupes, the best clue relates to their other common name: muskmelon. Ripe cantaloupes have a strong, musky aroma - unless they have been refrigerated and are still cool. Most ripe cantaloupes are a bright straw color. But other fully ripe ones can still be showing some green. Fortunately, cantaloupes release or - slip - themselves from the vine when they are ready for picking. In stores, look for a clean, dish-shaped scar where the melon used to be attached.
The only clue for honeydew melons is in the flower end - opposite the stem end. It will feel slightly soft when pressed.