Thanks to warm weather all over the U.S., domestic production is reaching peak output. This time of year is perfect for picnics and other outdoor events, and few items pair better with sunshine and outdoor eating than melons.
The melon industry has changed a bunch over the years. When I was a kid, watermelons were 25-pound monsters and my sisters and I spent many a hot summer afternoon seeing who could spit the large black seeds the furthest. Most watermelons sold today are seedless and much smaller varieties, bred to be "refrigerator sized" and easier to harvest and transport. On the whole the recent changes in watermelon and other variety production and post harvest handling have been positive - particularly in the last few years as a re-emphasis on flavor has brought back some great heirloom varieties or has greatly influenced the selection of new ones.
Melon Field- Florida
Melon vines need an awful lot of water at the right time in order to produce good fruit, which can make them a hard crop to grow in places where too little (or too much) water is available. Too much water prior to the vine establishing itself will drown the plant, too little and the plant will shut down and prevent the fruit from fully developing. Over watering or rain too close to harvest will saturate the fruit causing splits in transit and diluting flavor. Drought conditions in the west have reduced the number of acres planted significantly for this summer while too much rainfall in the southeastern U.S. has made for some critical gaps in supply. Kkeeping track of all the water issues keeps our melon buyer on his toes. A good harvest makes it all worthwhile, though, as a fully matured vine-ripened melon is tough to beat.
Stressed melons - Southeastern U.S.
Melons are a member of the Cucurbitaceous (or gourd) family - this is a very large and diverse family of plants that includes cucumbers, squash (winter and summer) and pumpkins. While they all come from the same family, melons are produced in an astonishing array of varieties. The most common grouping of these varieties produced in the US are musk melons (including cantaloupes), inodorous (or dew) melons, and watermelons. All have specific characteristics and selection criteria:
Musk: Measured by the number of varieties, musk melons are the largest group commercially produced. The most common varieties are cantaloupes and even these can vary significantly depending on where they are grown. East coast production is dominated by the Athena - a large, firm, tasty musk melon. On the west coast the dominate variety is the Oro Rico. There are several growing areas in between (Pecos in Texas and Rocky Ford in Colorado to name just two) that produce fruit of exceptional flavor. Aside from cantaloupe varieties there are several old and new musk varieties that are regularly produced like Galia, Sharlyn and Charentais.
Musk melons should be uniformly firm everywhere except on the blossom end (opposite the stem end) where they should have a slight give. A musk melon will detach (or slip) from the vine when mature, so melons with a stem attached are generally immature. Your nose will also help you select a good one - musk melons have a rich "musky" fragrance.
The Honeydew is the most common inodorous melon but like the musk, there are many varieties produced over the course of the season. Fruit like the Canary, Casaba and Santa Claus will remain firm and somewhat odorless even when ripe, so the best way to tell if a melon is ripe is by touch. Immature fruit will have a slick feel to the exterior but as the melon ripens, the sugars will saturate the rind, giving it a tacky (almost sticky) feel that is the best indicator for ripe fruit.
Honeydew on the vine - Texas
Watermelons are the last and possibly the most difficult to determine the inside condition from the outside because of the wide range of varieties. The "thumping method" is certainly the most entertaining (and widely used) but is not the most reliable in my experience. It goes like this (according to my great aunt in Mississippi 35 years ago): "If the melon sounds like your head, it is too green; if it sounds like your stomach, it's too ripe; if it sounds like your chest, it is just right." This system never worked for me mainly because I honestly can't figure out what my stomach should sound like (and I always get a headache when I select melons this way).
Most watermelons will have two main colors: a dark green with a lighter green or white second (or under) color. Most will also have a white spot where the melon was resting on the ground when it was growing. This is key because the rind of most watermelons, like their inodorous cousins, will turn slightly yellow as the fruit ripens. So I look for that slightly yellow tinge and I am rarely disappointed. Of course the most reliable method is to ask your local produce team member to "plug" a melon for you (cut out a small triangle to see how it looks and tastes) I like this way the best having long outlived my tolerance for bad melon choices.
Ambrosia Melons- California
Further into the summer the heirlooms emerge - varieties from all groups that are thin-skinned, irregular and often more difficult to grow (and ship).
They are also high sugar, wonderfully textured, fragrant and worth the trouble if you can find them. Here on the Central Coast. the Ambrosia and Ha'ogen take the best melon honors but all over the U.S. seeds from old varieties are planted to keep these summer jewels alive. What's your favorite?
Many thanks to Dana Peters, Bryan Doane, Nick Moless, and John Walker for contributing to this post.