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How to pick a watermelon

By Lucas Kwan Peterson, Los Angeles Times on

We've all been through it. Lugging home a huge, heavy watermelon from the store or farmers market - as perfect-looking as you could find. Schlepping it up the stairs and making room for it in the refrigerator. Waiting for the opportune time to crack it open - a picnic maybe, or just a hot summer day. Something, anything, to bring a little joy to the perpetual Groundhog Day we've all been living since mid-March.

And then, upon slicing it open, you see your deepest fears have been realized: It's a bad melon.

Nothing can top the heartbreak of discovering your carefully selected watermelon is terrible. It's mealy or flavorless; or worse, it has the integrity of rotted wood or has huge patches of white that make it resemble more cucumber than melon (the two are in the same Cucurbitaceae family, by the way).

When perusing fruits and vegetables at the market, with a few exceptions, it's pretty easy to tell what you're going to get. Lettuces, carrots, apples, berries - you judge primarily on appearance. While it's certainly no guarantee of flavor, what's the worst that happens? If you get a flavorless strawberry or an insipid tangelo, you can toss it with relatively little harm done.

Not true with watermelons, which are about as high-stakes as you can get, produce-wise. When you've picked a good one, there's no greater reward. And when it's bad, well, you've managed to instantly create 16 pounds of garbage and disappoint your family, friends and entire quarantine bubble.

Is there a foolproof, science-backed, empirically correct way to choose a watermelon? Unfortunately no, according to Zheng Wang, vegetable crops farm advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension. Selection, like all good things in life, will always be something of a gamble.

 

"I don't think there's anything scientifically," he said, that would guarantee a top-notch watermelon. However, "There are some techniques about when to pick a watermelon," he said, such as looking for a dried-out tendril in the field, as well as color.

That moment of harvesting is important, Wang said, as, unlike tomatoes, which are often picked green and allowed to ripen on the journey to the store, watermelons will not auto-mature. "Whatever level of maturity it is, it is," he said.

What of seeded versus seedless watermelons?

Seedless varieties began to be commercially available in the 1990s, according to Michigan State University Extension. Now they dominate the market - today, around 85% of U.S.-produced watermelons are seedless.

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