When we think of harvest seasons, we tend to think peak summer and fall. But even though winter’s fields look fallow in many parts of the U.S., there are still plenty of delicious in-season fruits and vegetables to enjoy, if you know what to look for.
To help determine those guidelines, we talked to produce pros who’ll walk you through it.
Apples, pears and pomegranates
Laurie McBride, the stand and wholesale manager of Wickham’s Fruit Farm on New York’s Long Island, said apples are their most popular winter fruit, and “can last eight weeks or longer, depending on variety.”
“The flavors in Pink Lady and Granny Smith develop more during storage and frankly, taste better after storing than they do straight off the tree, since apples like [the] cold,” she said.
Next to apples are pears. To test for the best ones, McBride advises looking for hydration, first and foremost. “Proper water content is responsible for the balance of flavors and internal structures,” she said, affecting how juicy the fruit is.
Patrick Ahern, produce specialist and head of procurement at Baldor Specialty Foods, a commercial specialty supplier headquartered in Bronx, New York, said pears should be assessed for signs of softness and color change. “Don’t wait too long to eat the fruit, as the window of opportunity is short!” he said. Pears last around three to five days chilled, and less at room temperature.
Shriveled apples or pears can be described as mealy, sour or mushy. Luckily, there are easy indicators that show when a fruit is at its best. Look for tight skin and test for firmness by handling it, but “don’t squeeze it like you would a stress ball! That leads to bruising, and our motto is, ‘Everyone loses when the apples get bruises,’” McBride said with a laugh.
Ahern also noted that holding the fruit is a quick tell. “You will see a common thread with both fruits and vegetables that it should be heavy for its size, which means there’s plenty of juice inside, it’s not dried out or picked too late. You also want to make sure it’s smooth and unblemished, which shows that it has been grown and selected well, as cuts or bruises during harvest can lead to bacteria getting in and mold and rot to follow.”
These criteria also extend to harder fruits, like pomegranates, another popular winter fruit. Irregularly shaped ― not holiday-ornament round ― is actually ideal, and the color doesn’t matter as long as it’s heavy, solid and blemish-free.
Grapefruit, oranges, clementines and other spherical citrus are often at their peak in the winter months. For these, you want to watch out for soft spots, Ahern cautioned. On the other hand, with oval-shaped citrus like lemons and limes, choose the ones that surrender just a bit to a quick squeeze ― they’ll have less bitter pith. Make sure lemons and limes are brightly hued, not spongey or marred by ugly brown spots, which are indicators of being past their prime.
Spherical citrus fruits don’t follow the same rules. Color vibrancy means much less and the nose will know. That’s particularly true for mandarins, Ahern said. “The ones with a skin that easily peels off are harder to discern ― rub the skin and you should get a fresh, strong aroma from the fruit and a little oil on your skin.” You can also sniff the navel to get an idea of the flavor beneath the peel.
As with the other citrus fruits, feel for surprising heft to ensure that they’re not dried out, and be aware that the thicker the skin, the smaller the yield.
Onions, potatoes and root vegetables
There’s treasure buried beneath the hard, frostbitten ground ― onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are the headliners. Joseph Realmuto, executive chef at Honest Man Co. and its celebrated flagship restaurant Nick & Toni’s, is a huge fan of putting root vegetables on his winter menu, not only for their aromatic or cozy feelings, but because “an interesting benefit is that when the weather turns cold, they actually become sweeter due to the defense mechanism of the vegetable. The sugar drops to the roots of their plants to protect it when it gets cold, which is the part you’re eating!”
This is especially true for sweet potatoes. Look for smaller, squatter ones for the best flavor. Longer, thinner sweet potatoes and yams are more prone to stringiness, particularly at the pointy ends. For sweet and regular potatoes of any variety, you want as even, tight (not wrinkly) and intact skin, with clean eyes that aren’t too deep or moist. Ahern advises you to look for potatoes that are “clean, firm, have no mechanical damage like cuts, and no soft spots.” The same goes for rutabagas, turnips, carrots and parsnips. The latter two should be “snappy, not limp” and have fully green tops.
On the other hand, for onions and potatoes of any kind, avoid green growth (unless you’re trying to start a new winter garden). Sprouting means they haven’t been stored properly, and their flavor changes to accommodate this new life. However, don’t worry about the wispy “hairs” dangling off of them ― these little offshoot feeder roots are perfectly natural, common to vegetables dug out of the ground. All it means is that they haven’t been trimmed.
Finally, make sure your onions are dry and papery to the touch on the outer layer. This is one of the most important things, as onions that are extruding moisture to the surface are typically damaged — and moisture is an open invitation to mold and rot. Ahern says to look for shiny, clear skin for best quality. These will be sweet, juicy and fresh-tasting once you cut them open.
Light leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and other summer shoots may get a lot of glory for their delicate flavor and texture. But hardy, fibrous winter greens are way underrated. In this group are chicories, which include frisée, curly endives, radicchio, escarole and Belgian endives; beet family member chard; and mustards, such as collard greens, kale, broccoli rabe, and rapini.
These are naturally a bit tougher than summer greens and can be woody, bitter or even sour. But picked and cooked properly, they can still be tender and smooth if you get them at their best. Your odds of a good haul are actually better these winter months, as items like radicchio, kale, fennel and their related vegetables ― like winter root veggies ― are sweeter in cooler seasons.
Your cue with this category is vibrancy. Look for plush purple in radicchio, bright white in endives, bold yellow and pink in Swiss chard, and of course, deep, lush green in the leaves, which ought to be tight and free of large imperfections. Crispness is another trait you want to keep in mind, Realmuto said. Additionally, you’ll want to pay close attention to the edges of the leaves, looking for signs of fading, which might appear light yellow or brown. Both indicate age.
McBride’s pro tip: Check the stem. “It was once responsible for nurturing the produce, but it stops growing once harvested. Your goal should be to find the most recently harvested possible out of the pile on display, so look for a fresh cut. Something that is brown or black in color or corky to hard in texture has been out of the field for some time.” Ahern noted that an off smell can be a sign of vegetables picked long ago.
Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts
This stem rule also applies to brassicas ― cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. You don’t want to see dry, split stems with signs of decay. Rather, tightness and density are the most desired traits. You want the florets of broccoli and cauliflower to appear in dense clusters, and the sprouts and cabbage leaves should be closed like a budding flower. The latter ought to be a middling shade of green, not washed out or overly dark, as that means they were left in the field a bit longer than ideal.
Broccoli florets can vary in shades of green to tinges of violet, but leave them at the stand if they’re yellow, an indicator of them being past their prime with flowers ready to burst. On the other hand, too-tight florets mean they were cut too early and may not be as flavorful.
Broccoli can also get soft if not stored properly on ice, so handle your crown to make sure it doesn’t feel floppy. Conversely, the stalk can be woody if harvested too maturely, so snap off a floret and see if a layer of stalk peels off with it. If it does, grab a different one.
Cauliflower is a bit more straightforward. You want creamy, with little to no gray or brown discoloration, and pale green leaves. You can cut off the dark bits if a few start to develop, but once they get mushy or dark, that head’s a goner.
If you thought hard squash season was over with the fall, think again! They keep splendidly and forever in cool, dark conditions. Seek out pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash and spaghetti squash and let weight be your primary guide. They should be hard and dense, almost unexpectedly so for their size.
“When choosing squash, look for natural skin color and stay away from wet or translucent-looking skin with blemishes,” Realmuto advised. Unlike other types of produce that are traditionally waxed to a high gloss for appeal, a shiny winter squash is actually not your best pick. That means it was plucked too early, as mature squash will be more sedate ― duller, matte and more strongly hued. Bumps and color variations are completely acceptable.
Ahern repeated that you should make sure there are no cuts or soft spots. That includes any area at all that allows your nail to break through easily. If you can do that, it’s already past its prime. Also, look out for cracks. Not only does a crack indicate rough treatment, but it breaks the rind’s protective seal, allowing bacteria to enter and rot to commence.
Lastly, check the stem as you would with greens, making sure there are no signs of mold or decomposition. It should be dry, hard and in one piece, which will indicate proper harvest and storage before it hit your market.
When it comes to winter produce, as McBride says, just ask. “When in doubt, ask your farmer. Ask at the farmer’s market. Ask the produce manager. You might be surprised, but we have a passion for what we do and love to share it!”
So, just because the major traditional feast days are behind us, season’s eatings are still ahead. Go ahead and make yourself a wintery mix of your own devising. Your body will thank you.