How to Select, Store, and Cook Fall’s Best Produce
1 of 11Brian Henn
How to choose: Look for apples that are firm, brightly colored, and free of bruises. The skin should be clean and shiny. A dull finish indicates the fruit may be past its prime. (If you think the apple is shiny because it has been waxed, flick the skin close to the stalk. A dull sound means the apple is ripe; a hollow sound means it’s overripe.)
How to store: Apples do best in the fruit drawer of the refrigerator. At room temperature, they ripen too quickly and become mealy.
Shelf life: 2 weeks in the refrigerator; 2 days at room temperature.
Best uses: Apples are delicious eaten out of hand, of course. They are also good baked in pies, roasted, and sautéed. To make fresh applesauce, core and roughly chop the fruit (leave the skins on). Simmer, covered, with ¼ cup water, until very soft. Stir in cinnamon to taste.
How to choose: Pick firm broccoli with tight, compact florets. They should be an even dark green with stalks slightly lighter in color. Yellowing broccoli is old and will taste overly strong. A whitish stalk will be tough and woody.
How to store: Refrigerate broccoli unwashed (moisture speeds decay) in a plastic bag in the vegetable compartment.
Shelf life: A newly cut head of broccoli will stay fresh for 5 days. Wilted leaves and open buds indicate it’s past its prime.
Best uses: Separate the head into florets to encourage even cooking. Peel the stems to make them more tender. Broccoli is best roasted, sautéed, or steamed. Or try blanching cut florets in boiling water just until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and toss with lemon juice, olive oil, and red pepper flakes.
How to choose: Brussels sprouts are most frequently sold cut from the stalk in 1-pint packages, although you can occasionally find them still on the stalk at farmers’ markets. Look for firm, compact heads with clean stem ends. They should be no larger than an inch in diameter. Any bigger and they’ll taste too cabbagey.
How to store: Store sprouts unwashed (moisture speeds decay) and tightly wrapped in a plastic bag in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator.
Shelf life: 3 to 4 days.
Best uses: Brussels sprouts are great cut in half and sautéed in oil over medium heat until tender, 7 to 10 minutes. During the last minutes of cooking, toss in 1 large clove of garlic, thinly sliced, and a handful of golden raisins. The sprouts can also be roasted or blanched (briefly boiled). They’re often too strong to eat raw.
How to choose: Pick a squash that is rock solid and heavy for its size. Its skin should be matte. A shiny finish is a sign that the squash wasn’t ripe when it was picked. Look for an intact stem, which will help slow down the loss of moisture.
How to store: Protect butternut squash from light and heat by storing it in a cool, dry place (not in the refrigerator).
Shelf life: Stored properly, a whole squash will keep for a month, making it useful to have on hand for impromptu meals. A cut uncooked piece wrapped in plastic will last for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
Best uses: Roasting butternut squash at 400º F renders it sweet and tender. Cook it in the oven, halved, seeded, and cut-side down (to keep it from drying out). Scoop out the flesh and mash with a little butter, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Butternut squash can also be simmered or sautéed.
How to choose: Choose cauliflower with compact, creamy white florets and bright green leaves. Old specimens will have a yellowish tinge and tiny black mold spots.
How to store: Refrigerate cauliflower unwashed (moisture speeds decay) in a plastic bag in the vegetable compartment.
Shelf life: 5 days. Any longer and its flavor and odor may become too strong.
Best uses: Trim the stalks before serving, since they’re too tough to eat. Cauliflower can be blanched (briefly boiled), steamed, or roasted. (It cooks quickly, so watch the pot carefully.) Served raw, cauliflower is a lively, spicy addition to a platter of crudités.
How to choose: Look for grapes that are plump, unblemished, and firmly attached to a flexible stem. They should have an even color. Examine the stem end and avoid grapes that are wrinkled, brownish, or white at the connections. Ripe white and green grapes should have a yellowish cast; red and purple ones should have no green.
How to store: Store grapes unwashed (moisture speeds decay) in a ventilated plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will shrivel, and even start to ferment, at room temperature.
Shelf life: About 1 week, although they are best within the first 3 days.
Best uses: Many grapes are treated with insecticide, so they should be washed thoroughly just before serving. Grapes can be roasted with poultry, veal, and pork. (Add them to the pan during the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking.) When frozen, they make a refreshing snack.
How to choose: Select fresh mushrooms that are firm and evenly colored. They should have a smooth, dry (not dried) skin and tightly closed caps. Avoid any that are wrinkled, spotted, or slimy―all signs of age.
How to store: Mushrooms need to breathe. They should be removed from any plastic wrap or packaging and placed, unwashed, in a paper bag or wrapped in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator. Store them whole, not sliced, for the longest shelf life.
Shelf life: Mushrooms deteriorate quickly. Most will keep for only 3 days at the most, although shiitake and cremini can last up to a week or more.
Best uses: Wipe mushrooms with a damp paper towel just before use. If they’re very sandy, it’s OK to quickly rinse them and pat dry. But never soak mushrooms or they will become mushy. Mushrooms are excellent raw, broiled, fried, or roasted. Or simply cut them in quarters and sauté in olive oil until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes.
How to choose: Unlike most fruits, pears ripen best off the tree, after they’ve been picked. Buy specimens that are smooth, free of bruises, and firm. An unripe pear has a bright and shiny skin; a ripe one looks matte.
How to store: Stand pears, unwashed (moisture speeds decay), on their bottoms and let them ripen at room temperature. To hasten the process, place one in a pierced paper bag with an apple, which releases ethylene, a gas that helps ripen certain fruits and vegetables. Ripe pears should be refrigerated.
Shelf life: Pears take 2 to 5 days to ripen at home. Fruit that is ready to eat will give a little near the stem when pressed with your thumb and should be used within 2 to 3 days. If the pear is soft around the middle, it may be too late.
Best uses: If you’re serving uncooked pears, cut them just before using them. Sprinkle the flesh with lemon juice to prevent browning. Pears also take well to baking, roasting, or sautéing. To poach them, peel 4 pears and simmer them gently in 1½ cups red wine and ¾ cup sugar until tender, about 25 minutes.
How to choose: Look for large, firm specimens with bright, shiny red skin. The fruit should be heavy for its size. A cracked or shriveled skin is a sign of overripeness.
How to store: At room temperature, pomegranates become riper and juicier with time. Fully ripened fruit should be kept in the refrigerator.
Shelf life: 2 to 3 weeks at room temperature; 2 months in the refrigerator.
Best uses: Pomegranate juice can be used in drinks, syrups, and jellies. The liquid stains, so wear an apron and wipe up spills immediately. Sprinkle the gorgeous, sweet-tart seeds into salads, rice dishes, or even glasses of Champagne.
How to choose: Choose firm, smooth potatoes with few eyes. Avoid those with green patches―a sign of prolonged exposure to light. The discolored spots taste bitter and are toxic if eaten in large quantities.
How to store: Remove potatoes from plastic packaging and place them in a paper bag so they can breathe. They should be stored in a well-ventilated, cool, dark place (not in the refrigerator, which will alter their taste).
Shelf life: Most varieties will be good for at least 2 weeks. Thin-skinned new potatoes should be used within 3 days.
Best uses: Peeled potatoes turn brown when exposed to air, so prepare them just before use. For creamy mashed potatoes, simmer peeled and quartered potatoes until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and mash with butter, milk, and sour cream. Potatoes are also suited to baking, boiling, frying, roasting, or steaming.
How to choose: Look for small to medium sweet potatoes. Large ones can be tough. Their skins should be smooth and evenly colored, without cracks or wrinkles. Sweet potatoes are sometimes labeled yams, though true yams have a thicker skin and are sold mostly in Latin American and African supermarkets.
How to store: More delicate than other potato varieties, sweet potatoes have a high sugar content that shortens their shelf life. Keep them in a well-ventilated, cool, dark place where the temperature won’t rise above 55 degrees, such as a cellar or a pantry.
Shelf life: 1 to 2 weeks.
Best uses: Sweet potatoes are tasty boiled or roasted. Or try baking them―skins pricked with a fork and covered with foil―in a 400º F oven until tender, about 1 hour. Serve drizzled with maple syrup.