Buying Guide: Vegetables

Purchase fresh quality vegetables at the peak of season. This guide contains information about uses, selecting best quality, what to avoid, and storage tips.
Buying Guide: Vegetables - Articles
Buying Guide: Vegetables

Asparagus

Asparagus is a root vegetable that produces green stalks with tight tips. By limiting sun exposure during sprouting growers are able to produce a white variety.

Usage

May eat raw, add to salads, steamed or microwaved.

Selection

High quality asparagus has tender stalks that are nearly completely green. Tender stalks will usually be medium-sized and the tips will be firmly closed. Do not skip buying asparagus simply because the stalks are fairly thick -- simply peel and cook as you normally would!

Avoid

Avoid asparagus with wrinkled stalks and wilted tips. Also avoid stalks that are too thin.

Storage

Keep fresh asparagus clean, cold and covered. Trim the stem ends about 1/4 inch and wash in warm water several times. Pat dry and place in moisture-proof wrapping. Refrigerate and use within 2 or 3 days for best quality. To maintain freshness, wrap a moist paper towel around the stem ends, or stand upright in two inches of cold water.

Beans: Green or Yellow

Available in green and yellow, beans are also known as string beans, snap beans or wax beans.

Usage

May be eaten raw, steamed, baked, added to salads and casseroles. Selection: Look for fresh, clean beans that are tender, crisp and well shaped. The most tender beans will be thin but can be either long or short. Pick beans with smooth skin.

Avoid

Avoid beans that are tough and discolored - this is a sign that they are not fresh. Also avoid beans that are soft, wrinkled, or have lumpy sections along the length.

Storage

Wash and dry beans in water before refrigeration, but do not snap off the ends before storing. Beans will keep for several days in a plastic container, but are best when used immediately.

Beets: Red

Also known as garden beets, the most common color is red although they can range in colors from different degrees of red to white and rings of red and white. Greens from beets are also edible.

Usage

Boiled, pickled or in salads. Can be added to soups, baked or fried. Beet tops can be used like spinach.

Selection

Good quality beets will be relatively smooth, firm and small-sized. Bulk beets should be firm and not too dark colored. Beets with the greens still attached assure the freshest product. Fresh beet greens should have bright green leaves with red veins running through them.

Avoid

Avoid beets that are dark red to the point of almost being black or soft globes with rough pock-marked skin. Other signs to watch out for are leaves that are limp and wilted, or dark green with spots of yellow or slime.

Storage

Store beets unwashed in the refrigerator crisper where they will keep for two to four weeks. Cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the roots, leaving about two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from "bleeding." The tops need to be removed from the beets before storage to prevent moisture loss in the beet. Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag where they will keep fresh for about four days, beet greens are great in salads.

Broccoli

This deep green flower heads looks like a tree with thick, edible stalk.

Usage

Eaten raw in vegetable platters, add to salads, use in soups, stews, casseroles.

Selection

Good quality broccoli will be dark green to almost blue in color on the flower end and will also be tightly budded.

Avoid

Avoid broccoli with a flower end that is soft enough to easily part with your finger tips. Avoid broccoli that is even slightly limp. Broccoli that has yellow buds (blooming) is overly mature.

Storage

Refrigerate unwashed in a plastic bag, up to 4 days. Keep broccoli away from moisture which can cause it to become limp, moldy, and spoiled. Peel tough stalks before cooking.

Cabbage

Cabbage grows in various shades of green, as well as red and purple. Head shape varies from the standard round to flattened or pointed. Most varieties have smooth leaves, but the Savoy types have crinkly textured leaves.

Usage

Eaten raw in salads such as coleslaw, can be steamed, added to casseroles, soups, and stews.

Selection

Good quality product will be semi-solid, well-rounded and fairly heavy in relation to size. Even green coloring means good flavor and vitamin content. Cabbage with fairly thick and pliable leaves will be more tender and juicy.

Avoid

Avoid cabbage that has thin, wilted leaves which are a sign of old cabbage. Oblong and cracked heads mean poor quality from growing conditions.

Storage

Store cabbage in an air tight bag or container in the refrigerator for a week.

Carrots

The carrot has a thick, fleshy, deep orange colored root, which grows underground, and feathery green leaves that emerge above ground.

Usage

Eaten raw, added to salads, cooked, stir-fry, or for juicing.

Selection

Good quality carrots will be firm, smooth-skinned, straight-shaped and well-colored with no blemishes. The deeper the orange coloring of the carrot, the higher the beta carotene (Vitamin A) content.

Avoid

Avoid carrots that are wilting, soft, split, or are growing thin hair-like roots. Those with large green areas at the top or that have dark blemishes or brown coloring of any kind are also undesirable.

Storage

Store fresh carrots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper apart from apples. Remove the leafy green top if attached at time of purchase and remove loose dirt with brush before storing.

Cauliflower

White being the most common color, but new varieties are available in green and purple. The entire flower part is edible.

Usage

Eaten raw in vegetable platters and salads, steamed, baked, added to soups.

Selection

Good quality cauliflower will have white or slightly off-white heads that are firm with no space between the curds. The leaves should be fresh and green. There is no quality difference between large and small heads.

Avoid

Avoid cauliflower that is soft, has ivory to light brown coloring or that has small dark spots on the curds.

Storage

Refrigerate unwashed cauliflower, head-down to prevent moisture loss, tightly wrapped in the crisper drawer, away from fruit.

Sweet Corn: Bi-color, White, or Yellow

Available in White, Yellow and Bi-colored. Corn grows in "ears," each of which is covered in rows of kernels that are then protected by the silk-like threads called "corn silk" and encased in a husk.

Usage

Boil, steam, microwave or roast.

Selection

Good quality corn has full, evenly formed filled ears with straight rows of kernels. The husks will be fresh-looking and bright green, and the silk ends free of decay or worm damage. Be sure the coloring of the kernels is bright and shiny. Pull back the husk and poke one of the kernels at the tip of the silk end with a fingernail. If juice squirts out and is only slightly cloudy, it's fresh. If the juice is thick or non-existent, the corn is old.

Avoid

Avoid corn that has shriveled, burned looking husks, or has dark-colored slime in the tassel. Large kernels, those with dark yellow dents and wrinkled kernels with no juice in them are all indications of old corn. Also avoid underdeveloped kernels lacking good color (except in the white variety) and short or crooked ears that are not filled almost to the tip with kernels.

Storage

Store sweet corn in the refrigerator for up to three days. Keep the husk attached to the sweet corn during storage; it will help protect and retain the corn's moisture content. If the husk is already removed, refrigerate fresh corn in a plastic bag.

Cucumber

This common salad ingredient is also best known for pickling into small sweet pickles or grown larger for dill pickles.

Usage

Eaten raw, in salads, sandwiches, or on vegetable platters, and as pickles.

Selection

Good quality cucumbers are an even dark-green color, firm and relatively thin, but can be either long or short. The thin skin of the cucumber does not require peeling unless waxed. English or hothouse cucumbers grow up to 2 feet long and are virtually seedless and claim to be burpless. They are usually sold in grocery stores shrink-wrapped.

Avoid

Avoid cucumbers that are soft, yellow or wrinkled on the ends. Huge fat cucumbers may be full of large seeds and bitter.

Storage

Refrigerate cucumbers up to one week in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Eggplant

Most common is the dark purple color but newer varieties are available in pale yellow to white. One can generally describe the eggplant as having a pleasantly bitter taste and spongy texture.

Usage

Baked, microwaved or fried.

Selection

Good quality eggplant should be firm, dark-colored with smooth and shiny skin, and relatively light for its size. Eggplant can be any size from small to quite large and may be egg-shaped to almost round. When young, the skin is tender and edible; as it ages the skin gets tough and needs peeling.

Avoid

Avoid eggplant that is soft, has blemishes, discolored marks or soft spots. Eggplant with wrinkled and dull colored skin indicates old produce.

Storage

Store your eggplants uncut and unwashed in your refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag up to a week.

Lettuce: Green and Romaine

Leaf lettuce has ruffled edges and comes in red and green varieties. Romaine is oblong in shape with dark green outer leaves.

Usage

Eaten raw in salads, sandwiches, used as a garnish.

Selection

Good quality green leaf lettuce will have fairly large, loose heads and thick, "crumpled" leaves. The leaves will be medium to dark-green in color blending to nearly white ribs or veins. Scratch the stalk and smell. A sweet or bitter smell means sweet or bitter flavor.

Avoid

Avoid lettuce with thin, wilted leaves and brown spots near the stalk end. Extremely solid, light-colored heads mean all core and less taste.

Storage

Store in airtight bag or tightly wrapped romaine will keep up to ten days. Leaf lettuces can be stored wrapped in a damp paper towel and then sealed in a plastic bag and can be stored up to five days. All lettuce should be stored in a refrigerator crisper drawer away from fruit.

Lettuce: Iceburg

Iceberg lettuce is the most common type of lettuce. Heads are large, round, and solid, with medium-green outer leaves and lighter green or pale-green inner leaves. Butter-head lettuces, including the Bibb varieties have smaller heads than iceberg. This type will have soft, light-green leaves in a rosette pattern in the center.

Usage

Eaten raw in salads, sandwiches, used as a garnish.

Selection

Good quality iceberg lettuce will have fairly large, moderately firm heads that give to gentle pressure, and thick leaves. The leaves will be medium to light-green in color blending to nearly white ribs or veins. Scratch the stalk and smell. A sweet or bitter smell means sweet or bitter flavor.

Avoid

Avoid lettuce with thin, wilted leaves and brown spots. Extremely solid, light-colored heads mean all core and less taste. Oblong and cracked heads mean poor growing conditions.

Storage

Iceberg lettuce can store well for up to two weeks tightly wrapped in refrigerator but store away from fruit.

Mushrooms

We usually describe mushrooms as having a cap -- the wide portion on top, gills -- the numerous rows of paper-thin tissue seen underneath the cap when it opens, and a stem.

Usage

May be eaten raw, added to soups, salads, sauces, sauted and served over meats and side dishes.

Selection

Look for young mushrooms that are small to medium in size. Caps should be either closed around the stem or moderately open with pink or light tan gills. The surface of the cap should be white or creamy, or uniform light brown of a brown type mushroom.

Avoid

Overripe mushrooms (shown by wide-open caps and dark, discolored gills underneath) and those with pitted or seriously discolored caps.

Storage

Mushrooms should keep up to five days if stored in refrigerated unwashed in a paper bag (a plastic bag will trap moisture and promote spoilage; storing them out of a bag will promote dehydration).

Onions

The many varieties of onions fall into three general color ranges: yellow, white, and red.

Usage

Eaten raw in salads and on sandwiches, barbecued on shish kebabs, added to stews and soups, and in meat dishes and casseroles.

Selection

Good quality yellow onions will be firm, free of blemishes or mold spots and have even-colored, paper-dry skin. Some people feel that sweeter onions will be flat-shaped from stem to root end, not round.

Avoid

Avoid onions that are soft, wet-skinned, bruised, have dark blemishes or spots of mold.

Storage

Store whole onions in a dry, dark, well ventilated place; not in the refrigerator, for 2 to 4 weeks. Avoid storing onions near potatoes; onions will absorb the potato's moisture and spoil from exposure to the potato's gas. Also avoid storing onions where they will be exposed to moisture. Once cut, onions should be sealed tightly in plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator.

Peas

Also known as English peas, these peas should be removed from the pod before cooking. Other types such as snow peas and sugar peas, are eaten pod and all.

Usage

May be eaten raw, added to salads. Steamed and added to casseroles, stews, and soups.

Selection

Snow peas should be flat with a fairly shiny appearance. Sugar snap peas are little smaller than snow peas and should have a plump, snug pod with the peas inside. Sugar peas have strings, but whether or not they are removed is a personal choice, but not required. Good quality peas will have a large pod that bulges away from the pea inside. The pod will be firm and crisp with medium to dark-green coloring.

Avoid

Avoid peas with soft, limp pods or blemished pods. Also avoid peas that are so big, they almost burst from the pod.

Storage

Snap and sugar peas have a somewhat longer shelf life than green peas, up to three days when kept refrigerated unwashed, in plastic bags. Snow peas like less humidity than sugar snap peas so take that into account in deciding where in the refrigerator to store them. It is also wise to perforate the plastic bag in which you intend to store them.

Peppers: Sweet Green, Yellow, or Red

Also known as bell peppers are available in green, red, yellow, orange, and purple. The green pepper is a pepper that has not fully ripened before being picked and will not ripen after picking which gives longer storage time before spoilage. The richer the color red, orange, and purple the sweeter the flavor and higher in Vitamin A and C nutrients.

Usage

Eaten raw, added to vegetable platters. Cooked, roasted, added to casseroles, cored and stuffed with filling as a main dish.

Selection

Good quality bell peppers will be firm, smooth-skinned and fairly evenly shaped. The coloring will be even with no blemishes.

Avoid

Avoid peppers that are soft, have wrinkled skin or are bruised or pock marked.

Storage

Whole bell peppers will refrigerate up to one week in a plastic bag. Store whole peppers unwashed.

Potatoes: Red

Potatoes are broken into four basic categories: russet, long white, round white and round red.

Usage

Baked, roasted, fried, boiled and added to salads.

Selection

Good quality red potatoes will be firm, smooth skinned and have bright red coloring. They should have few eyes, and those few eyes should be shallow.

Avoid

Avoid potatoes that are soft, wrinkled, have cuts in the skin or are green tinted.

Storage

Potatoes should be stored in a cool place away from light. Potatoes will keep one to two weeks. Any moisture will encourage sprouting so an ideal storage area for potatoes is dry -- avoid the refrigerator! Also avoid storing potatoes with onions. Though the two vegetables require similar storage conditions, onions will encourage potatoes to spoil.

Pumpkin

Large, round and orange, the flesh has a mild sweet flavor and the seeds are edible roasted.

Usage

Baked in pies, custards, pureed for soups, added to stews, and carved for Jack-O-Lanterns!

Selection

A good quality pumpkin will be hard and heavy for it's size.

Avoid

Avoid pumpkins that are very light for their size or soft in any way.

Storage

Fresh whole pumpkins can be stored at room temperature up to one month.

Radishes: Red

Radishes can be purchased in bunches, with their greens attached, or in bags with greens clipped off. The flavor ranges from mild to peppery and is determined by age and variety.

Usage

Eaten raw in salads and vegetable platters, used as a garnish.

Selection

Good quality radishes will be smooth, firm, and small to medium sized. The coloring will be an even bright cherry red with no blemishes or scars. The tops will be bright green and crisp.

Avoid

Avoid radishes that are soft, dullcolored, have white or brown scars, or black spots. If the tops are yellow, limp or slimy, the radishes are either old or have not been refrigerated properly.

Storage

Remove and discard leaves if on at time of purchase. Store unwashed radishes in an airtight bag in refrigerator up to 5 days.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb looks like a pink or red stalk of celery and is a vegetable, but used like a fruit in sweetened sauces and pies.

Usage

Chopped and cooked for desserts custards, or pie, and sauces.

Selection

Look for fresh, firm rhubarb stems with a bright, glossy appearance. Stems should have a large amount of pink or red color, although many good quality stems will be predominantly light green. Be sure that the stem is tender and not fibrous.

Avoid

Either very slender or extremely thick stems, which are likely to be tough and stringy. Also avoid rhubarb that is soft, dull looking, scarred or has brown or black ends. Do not eat rhubarb leaves, they are poisonous in large quantities.

Storage

Rhubarb leaves must be removed before cooking. Rhubarb will last up to two weeks when put in a plastic bag in the coolest part of the refrigerator, but best if eaten within 7 to 10 days.

Spinach

Spinach is available in curly and smooth leaf varieties.

Usage

Eaten raw in salads and sandwiches, cooked as a side dish, added with pasta, in soups, stews and casseroles, and used as a topping on pizza.

Selection

Good quality spinach will have broad, thick, crisp dark green leaves. The stems will be unblemished and free of mud.

Avoid

Avoid spinach with thin, limp leaves that are pale-green or yellow or in wilted condition. Also avoid mud-caked product, or bunches with extremely large or blemished stalks.

Storage

Store unwashed in a airtight bag for 3 to 5 days in refrigerator.

Tomatoes

Many varieties are available ranging widely in size, color and shape.

Usage

Eaten raw, added in salads and on sandwiches, used in salsa, chili, stews, casseroles, and sauces.

Selection

Good quality slicing tomatoes will be firm, smooth-skinned and be at least pink in color. Tomatoes that are partially green will ripen if left at room temperature.

Avoid

Avoid tomatoes that are too soft, wrinkled or those that have broken skin. Tomatoes with a green blush will ripen, but avoid those with blotchy green or brown areas.

Storage

If your tomatoes need further ripening, keep them in a warm place but not in direct sunlight. Unless they are fully ripened, do not store tomatoes in a refrigerator--the cold temperatures might keep them from ripening later on and will ruin the flavor.

Turnip

The most popular turnip has white flesh and a reddish-purple tint on top. It may be sold "topped" (with leaves removed) or in bunches with tops still on. Small young turnips have a delicate slightly sweet taste. As they age the taste becomes stronger and the texture coarser, sometimes almost woody.

Usage

Sliced or cubed in stews, soups, salads, boil and mash with potatos.

Selection

Good quality turnips will be very firm, smooth-skinned and heavy for their size. The coloring will be light-purple on the top fading to bright-white at the bottom.

Avoid

Avoid turnips that are soft, spongy, blemished with brown spots, cut or lightweight for its size, and large turnips with too many leaf scars around the top.

Storage

Turnips can be tightly wrapped and stored in the refrigerator up to two weeks.

Zucchini or Yellow Squash

Also know as summer squash, is commonly 4 to 8 inches long. On overly large summer squash, the skin becomes thick and needs peeling and large seeds should be removed before cooking.

Usage

Eaten raw in vegetable platters, cooked, steamed, fried, baked or microwaved, added to soups, stews, and casseroles.

Selection

Good quality zucchini should be firm, smooth-skinned and small in size and the surface will be shiny.

Avoid

Avoid any that are soft, wrinkled, blemished or dull in appearance. Large squash will be less tender than a smaller product.

Storage

Unwashed squash will refrigerate up to a week in a plastic bag, though it is best used within 2 or 3 days of purchase. To prevent decay do not wash until ready to use. Keep away from moisture as it will speed the decaying process.