Sweet and succulent and juicy; a good watermelon is the thirst-quenching treat hot summer daydreams are made of. The bad ones, though, either overripe and mealy or underripe and flavorless, don’t do anything to improve a sweltering day.
We’ve all brought home a dud at some point, but with a little bit of guidance we can avoid that kind of disappointment. Here’s what you need to know to have yourself a winning watermelon season.
When is Watermelon Season?
Watermelon season starts as early as May in some places, and winds down in September. The very peak of the season is July and August. Grocery stores sell watermelons, mainly red seedless, year-round. Off-season watermelons mostly come from Mexico and Central America.
The best time for grocery store watermelons is when they’re in season. From May to September, stores will be supplied with melons at their peak from Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, and California; these melons travel shorter distances than their off-season stand-ins, so they’re fresher when they get to you. As with all produce, the less time there is between harvest and purchase, the better they’ll taste.
For more variety, and ultimate freshness, head to your local farmers market.
Varieties of Watermelon
There are about 300 different varieties of watermelon in the world, but only a small percentage are grown and eaten regularly. We can categorize watermelons into a few groups: seeded, seedless, miniature, and yellow-fleshed. Within these groups are many varieties,
- Seeded watermelons are the old classic. They can be round or oval, and their flesh is studded with crunchy black seeds.
- Seedless watermelons are hybrids. They aren’t entirely without seeds, it’s just that the seeds they do contain are soft and easier to eat and ignore than the black seeds. These types are harder to grow, so if you notice a price difference, that’s why.
- Miniature watermelons are, you guessed it, small. They tend to have thinner rinds and they’re the perfect personal-sized treat.
- Watermelons with yellow or orange flesh are lacking in lycopene. That’s all. They’re still sweet and delicious, just like their red-fleshed relatives. One example of this type of watermelon is the Yellow Doll watermelon.
How to Pick a Watermelon (or How to Tell if a Watermelon is Ripe!)
Wherever you buy your watermelons, the rules for selecting a good one are the same. Watermelons don’t continue to ripen once they’re cut from the vine, so you want to be careful when choosing. The following steps and tips will help you get a good one every time.
- Check the stem: The part where the stem used to be will be brown or green. Brown means it had enough time to ripen on the vine. Green means get another melon because this one was picked too early.
- Check the skin: It shouldn’t be shiny, and if it has webbing — light brown squiggly scars — so much the better! Webbing is a sign of sweetness, as are any brown patches (those round solid scars, which should not be confused with bruises or soft spots made by mishandling). And, of course, you don’t want the skin to have any punctures.
- Check its underbelly for a creamy yellow patch: This indicates that it ripened in the field, on the vine, and under the sun, just as nature intended. Field spots range from white to yellow, and the ripest watermelons have the yellowest field spots.
- Check its weight: A good watermelon will feel heavy for its size, and it’ll have a little give when you squeeze it (gently!). A rock-hard watermelon is underripe.
- Tap and listen: if it makes a deep, hollow sound, it’s likely to be full of water and delightfully juicy. A flat or dull sounding watermelon should be avoided. Some scholarly watermelon experts say that this tapping for sound effects thing is pure folly, but it’s an extremely common practice for a reason (farmers, chefs, grocers, and grandparents the world over do it, and they can’t all be wrong!). Whether or not it’s scientifically sound, it’s fun! If you enjoy it, do it.
How Long Do Watermelons Last?
Watermelons taste best at room temp, but what’s more refreshing than cold watermelon? Where you store a whole one depends on what you want, and there is no wrong answer.
A whole watermelon will keep for about a week on the counter, and two weeks in the fridge.
I’d like to encourage you to act fast and enjoy them as soon as possible. They’re at their best when they’ve just been harvested, and I want you to get the most enjoyment out of watermelon season. They start to deteriorate once they’re harvested, luckily at a slow pace, but still, don’t hang onto them for too long. Just because they can keep doesn’t mean we should make them.
Store chunks or slices in an airtight container; they’ll last up to a week in the fridge. If you have halves or quarters, wrap them well and refrigerate, and cut into them within 2-3 days.
How to Cut a Watermelon
We've written all about that.
How to Freeze a Watermelon
Watermelon isn’t the best candidate for freezing. It can be done, but the results are never very satisfying. If you’re going to freeze watermelon, be sure to use the frozen chunks only for things like smoothies or granita. When frozen watermelon thaws it’ll be soggy, and it won’t taste nearly as good as the fresh stuff.
To freeze: Cut your watermelon into chunks and spread them out on a baking sheet. Put the baking sheet in the freezer until the chunks are solid. Transfer them to a bag, remove as much air as possible, seal it up, and toss it in the freezer.
Extra! Extra! Watermelon's Origins
A recent article published in Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences identifies the Kordofan melon from Sudan as a possible progenitor to domesticated watermelon.
This is exciting because the origins of domesticated watermelon are still a mystery — botanists know they’re native to Africa, but there are no certainties beyond that fact. This paper corrects a 90-year-old taxonomic error, which lumped watermelon into the same category as the South African citron melon and gets us a little closer to accurately pinpointing watermelon’s place of origin.
The team used ancient Egyptian tomb paintings and genome sequencing in their research, and if you, like me, find all of this fascinating, you can check it out here.
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