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Expert Advice: Picking the Perfect Watermelon

A juicy slice of watermelon is just the thing on a hot summer day. But there's also a hold-your-breath moment when cutting into a whole melon. Will the inside reveal that luscious reddish-pink color and natural sweetness or will it look and taste blah? To celebrate National Watermelon Day (August 3, 2021), we caught up with Stephanie Barlow, who, as spokesperson for the Florida-based National Watermelon Promotion Board, has been talking watermelon on behalf of growers nationwide for more than 15 years. She doles out some of her wisdom for picking summer's favorite fruit.

Clues to Quality

When you're staring at a pile of watermelons in a store or at a market, it's tempting to just grab one and hope for the best. Instead of winging it, learn a few skills. While some people believe in thumping a watermelon to try to gauge its quality, Stephanie suggests this quick 1, 2, 3 test.

1. Look at it. Start by making sure the melon has a symmetrical shape. Check to make sure it's free from bruises, cuts, dents, or soft spots.

2. Pick it up. Watermelon is about 92 percent water, so it should be very heavy for its size. Lift several for comparison.

3. Turn it over. Look for the "ground spot" where the watermelon rested on the ground as it ripened in the sun. This spot is telling. It should be buttery yellow—not white-green or overly yellow.

Seeded or Seedless?

Choosing between a traditional watermelon with black seeds and a seedless variety comes down to convenience more than taste, Stephanie says. "While many people believe seeded is sweeter, there's a lot more at work that is impacting the sweetness of that watermelon," she says, noting that weather, irrigation, and other growing conditions all contribute to a melon's flavor regardless of seed status.

Seedless watermelons are classified as such because they don't have black seeds, which are mature seeds. However, they have white seed-like objects. "What many people call 'seeds' in seedless watermelons are actually empty seed coats where a seed did not fully mature," Stephanie says. Sometimes seedless watermelons have a few random black seeds; those are sterile and unable to sprout melons if replanted, she says.

Seedless varieties, which have been around for decades, have become popular because they're easy to prepare, take on the go, and use in recipes. If you're hoping for a completely seed-free option, be patient. "I don't know of a variety of seedless watermelon that has yet perfected truly having no seed coats or the occasional black seed," Stephanie says. "But new varieties are being created worldwide every year."

When You Get It Home

Unlike other fruits, watermelon doesn't continue to ripen after it's picked. What you bring home is what you get whether you cut it immediately or wait several days. As such, it doesn't matter if you store the uncut melon on the counter or in the refrigerator. (If it was cold when you bought it, though, continue to keep it chilled, Stephanie says.) A few tips:

•Don't store a watermelon near bananas, which emit ethylene gas that can cause it to spoil.

•An uncut watermelon should keep for at least a week. (A watermelon should be consumed within four weeks of being cut from the vine, but you often won't know when that was.)

•Before cutting, rinse the watermelon in cool water, scrub with a produce brush, and dry with paper towel.

The moment of truth comes when you finally make the cut. Hopefully, you'll have a colorful and perfectly sweet melon. "Super pale and a little cucumber-tasting? Underripe," Stephanie says. "Grainy and mushy? Overripe."

Store cut watermelon in the refrigerator and eat within three to five days, though Stephanie says that timeline can sometimes be stretched. "The rule of thumb to follow is 'When in doubt, throw it out,'" she says. "If the color, smell, or texture is off, it's done. What affects the time and texture is if the watermelon was underripe or overripe when purchased." If a watermelon is subpar, consider returning it to the store—or just make the best of it. "In either case—underripe or overripe—you can throw it in a blender to make drinks, smoothies, ices, and more," Stephanie says. "At 92 percent water, it will blend!"

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