Melons — How to choose and store fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, and other melons

Summer is here, and melons are on the menu! (Watermelon is practically synonymous with summer, right?!) The average American consumes about 27 pounds of melons each year, and I’d bet that most of those pounds of sweet, refreshing melon are enjoyed in the summertime! Do you have a favorite? (My vote is for a fully ripe honeydew!) 

Melons belong to the Cucurbitaceae botanical family, which makes them relatives of squash and cucumbers. (BTW, technically they’re all berries!) The word “melon” includes a very wide array of produce — there are hundreds of varieties of watermelon alone. 

Different melons have different sweetness and nutritional content, but as a group they’re very healthful — low in sodium and a good source of dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin K, and copper. They’re also a very good source of vitamins A and C and vitamin B6.  

And here’s a bit of melon trivia for you: Yubari King melons, which grow only on Japan’s Hokkaido Island, are the most prized melons in the world. In 2018, a pair of Yubari Kings sold at auction for $29K!

whole melons in a basket at a grocery store

Shopping for Melons

Assuming you’re not shopping at auction for a Yubari King melon, here’s what to look for:

  • No stem. If there’s still a stem on the melon, it might have been harvested too soon. 
  • A smooth, hollow area where the stem was. This indicates the melon was harvested when ripe. 
  • Some give. Gently press on the base of the melon opposite the stem end. If it’s ripe, it’ll give easily and is ready to eat. 
  • A sweet, musky smell. The end of the melon should smell sweet, almost floral. If there’s no aroma, it’s probably not ready. (Watermelons are an exception to this. They aren’t aromatic like other melons.)
  • A large yellow spot on watermelons. You might think this is an unappealing blemish, but it’s a good sign that the watermelon was left on the vine until mature. 
  • Heft. Choose a melon that’s heavy for its size (whether large or small). If it’s light, it may be dried out. If it’s heavy, it’s likely to be juicy.
  • A surface without bruising, cracking, soft spots, or mold. 
  • A dull surface. If the surface is shiny, it’s probably underripe.
  • A pale yellow, not green, surface on a honeydew melon.
  • An orange/gold surface on melons with a net-like surface texture. The melon shouldn’t be green or white under the netting.

If you buy cut melon (sliced or diced or in balls), make sure it’s been kept chilled. The surface of the skin should feel cold!

BTW, even though melons will continue to ripen after harvest — and become softer and juicier — the sugar content won’t increase, so they won’t become sweeter. That’s why you want to a melon that was harvested ripe to begin with.

ripe, sliced cantaloupe on a purple plate

What about thumping on a melon to tell if it’s ripe?

Sometimes melons develop an empty spot in the center as they ripen, especially after heavy rains. That hollow will produce a hollow sound when you knock on the melon. While it might mean the melon is ripe, not all ripe melons will have a hollow in the center, so it’s not a foolproof method. Still, knock gently on a melon when shopping, if you like, as one of the possible indicators of ripeness.

Storage

The best storage conditions for melons is a temperature between 36 and 41 degrees F, with humidity of 95 to 100 percent. That’s very humid — it keeps the melon from drying out. 

  • Handle your melons carefully. They seem sturdy, but dropping them or packing them under heavy items can damage them. 
  • For the best tasting melon, leave your whole melon at room temperature until serving. If your melon is already ripe and you’re not ready to dig in soon, place it in the refrigerator for a few more days. Chilling a melon cuts back on the taste a bit, but it will keep the melon longer than leaving it out. 
  • Refrigerate your melon once it’s cut. Cover it with wrap or put it in a storage container and place in the refrigerator. Leave the seeds intact, if possible (they’ll help keep the flesh moist). The crisper drawer of the refrigerator is a good place because the humidity is higher in the crisper drawer than in other areas of the refrigerator.
  • Store cantaloupes away from other melons. Cantaloupes produce ethylene gas, which can cause fruits that are ethylene-sensitive (like watermelons and honeydews) to deteriorate more quickly.
  • Avoid temperature fluctuations.

Preparing your melon

Be sure to wash your melon! Some melons are grown at soil level, which means it’s easy for them to pick up bacterial contamination. Of course, like any produce, they can also be contaminated during handling. 

a halved, ripe melon being held upright next to a glass of balled melon

Wait to wash the melon until you’re ready to serve it, though. If you wash it before storing it, you’ll cut down its shelf life.

Scrub the whole melon with a clean vegetable brush under running water. Don’t use soap, because many melon skins are porous and will absorb soap residues. Pat with a dry, clean cloth. 

Cut the melon on a clean cutting board. Cut the stem end off so that it will sit semi-securely on the counter while you cut it lengthwise. Use a clean spoon to scrape out the seeds, then cut into slices, dice, or use an ice cream scoop or melon baller to make balls.

Long-term storage

You can freeze melon slices, balls or cubes. Use melon that’s ripe but still firm, and place it in freezer bags or containers. Melon slices can be separated with layers of wax paper, then placed in containers. 

Because it’s not acidic, melon shouldn’t be canned. (Nonacidic fruits are prone to grow bacterium when canned. Pressure canning would provide a safe canned melon, but it would also make the melon mushy.) One exception: You can make melon pickles and process those for canning. That’s because the acidic ingredients you use for pickling will keep the melon safe and edible, too.

Serving melons

Melons are popular at the breakfast table. And that’s understandable — what a great way to start a delicious day! But there are so many ways to enjoy all kinds of melon throughout the day, too. They’re perfect in lunch boxes and picnic baskets. Melon makes a great snack food by itself or in tandem with other melons or slices of cheese or a sprinkling of nuts. Here are just a handful of enticing melon recipes:

ripe melon salsa in a bowl made from a watermelon skin

Shaved Honeydew, Fennel, and Olive Salad

Cantaloupe Margarita with a Hint of Mint

Sweet, Sour, and Spicy Pickled Melon

Watermelon Ice Cream (no ice cream maker needed!)

How do you like to eat melon? What do you think of seedless watermelon — yay, or nay, spitting seeds is half the fun!

You might also enjoy:

How to store rhubarb

How to clean and store strawberries

Peanut butter — How to choose and store peanut (and other nut) butters

Jackfruit — How to purchase, store, and prepare jackfruit

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Tip Sheet for Storing Produce

Tip Sheet for Storing Produce