How to pick, prepare and enjoy cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon and other melons

Becky Krystal

THE WASHINGTON POST – Tomatoes! Corn! Peaches! Squash! Do I need to put one on a pedestal above the others? Certainly not. Let’s just say they’re all great, but for this post, we’re going to train our lens on melons.

“They’re just coming into their glory,” said author, gardener and heirloom produce advocate Amy Goldman from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley. “There’s nothing in the world like an heirloom ripened on the vine in full sun with maximum sugar content… They are so refreshing.”

Melons are no passing fancy for Goldman. She has been growing them for most of her life and in 2019 published a gorgeous, info-packed and coffee-table-worthy book simply called The Melon, featuring 125 varieties.

Melons have a long, global history of cultivation and admiration. Here’s what you need to know to understand, pick and appreciate them.

Melons and watermelons are members of the gourd family, or Cucurbitaceae. They may be referred to as cucurbits, too. That means they share much in common with such relatives as cucumbers and summer and winter squash. Goldman said that cucurbits likely originated in Asia. Different varieties were cultivated and domesticated as they spread around the world, with Africa pinpointed as the most probable origin of watermelon.

A variety of melons. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

What’s out there. Doing justice to the entire breadth of melons is impossible here. Particularly exciting are the heirloom varieties that people like Goldman are propagating to “bring back some of the simple culinary pleasures of the past and introduce them to a new generation of eaters and growers”. Beyond the commonly available varieties in the United States (US), there’s a wealth of melons, some sweet and some not, from around the world that you may be interested in growing or seeking out at specialty markets and farms.

Picking a good one

Choosing a melon that is ripe when you buy it is key, Goldman said. Melons don’t have starches that will convert to sugar after they’re picked, so to get the best flavour, you want to choose a melon at its peak sweetness. Texture and aroma can improve after harvest, though even those won’t necessarily salvage bland flesh.

Much depends on how the melon was grown and harvested. The fact that some melons are harvested while not fully ripe to ensure they survive shipping means there are plenty of mediocre specimens for sale. That’s one reason melons are prime candidates for buying locally when and if you can. Still, whether you’re buying them at the farmers market or supermarket, there are things to look for when shopping.

Watermelon may be the one with the most lore attached to it. Slap it and listen for a hollow sound? Goldman and others don’t think this subjective test is a reliable indicator, though if it sounds sloshy, it’s overripe. Instead, Goldman suggests looking for a yellow, not white or light green, spot on the underside of the melon where it rested on the ground. If the darker green stripes or spots are tinged too yellow, that’s an indication of sunburn and a sign that the melon has sat outside too long. A good watermelon should be gently rounded on the ends with a dull, not overly shiny, skin. It should be heavy for its size.

Skin colour on honeydew can be useful, too. Look for a creamy instead of green tinge. Honeydews don’t give off a telltale aroma. The blossom end pressure test can help.

According to Goldman, “Knowing how to judge a ripe winter melon is an art.” Regardless of what you’re buying, avoid melons with bruises, soft spots or other signs of damage.

Storing

Melons are sensitive to ethylene, a hormone in the form of gas that hastens ripening and eventually rot. That’s why you want to store them away from other ethylene-producing food, such as apples and bananas.

Some melons, including cantaloupe, are climacteric, meaning they respond to the presence of ethylene by producing more ethylene themselves. That makes them particularly perishable, as well as problematic when stored near other ethylene-sensitive produce, such as tomatoes, peaches, squash and greens. The shorter shelf life means they will only last a few days whole on the counter, after which they are best stored at 36-41 degrees Fahrenheit. They also like a high relative humidity, so try placing cantaloupe in the refrigerator crisper drawer, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) said, where they should last about five days, give or take depending on the degree of ripeness.

Watermelon and melons such as honeydew and canary, are non-climacteric, so they ripen more gradually and have a longer shelf life, as long as several months with some varieties. Goldman said watermelon can last two to three weeks at 60 degrees and winter melons three to four weeks at 45-50 degrees. The more melons are cut, the more rapidly they deteriorate, so consider leaving them as intact as you can in the fridge (and in the case of honeydew and cantaloupe, leaving the seeds in the uncut portion).

Preparation

Because they grow so close to the ground, melons can be a source of bacterial contamination, which is why you want to take care to wash the outside. Cutting into an unwashed melon can drag harmful bacteria into the flesh. Wash melons under cool running water, ideally scrubbing with a clean vegetable brush. Don’t use soap or bleach. ANR noted that the netted surface of cantaloupe provides an ideal hideout for bacteria, so pay special attention to scrubbing those spots. Dry well with clean dish towels before cutting.

There is no wrong way to cut a melon. For cantaloupe and honeydew, I tend to rest them on their longer side and just cut wedges as I need them. If you’re worried about wobbling, you can cut the stem end off and set it face down on the counter and then cut wedges vertically from end to end, as the ANR suggested. Large watermelons are particularly versatile, with plenty of ways to turn it into wedges, cubes and sticks. Feeling fancy? You can ball any melon, with a tool designed for the job or even a small disher.

Serving

You’ll get no argument from me if all you want to do is have melon in its raw, unadulterated form. Still, there are plenty of ways to expand your repertoire should you so choose. If you’re stuck in a gazpacho rut, try chilled melon soup, such as coconut melon soup.