Standing in the grocery store aisle, I overheard another customer ask one of the customer service people in produce how to tell if a cantaloupe is ripe. I don’t know, said the clerk. I think you tap on it and if it sounds hollow it is ripe. He was not correct. Well, not completely incorrect, but the method he was offering is definitely not the best method for checking the ripeness of a cantaloupe. This is not the first time I have heard this question asked, and I rarely hear the correct answer.
I grew up on a small farm. Although it wasn’t huge, we grew many things. One of these many things was cantaloupe. In late summer early fall when the sun was still hot, I would run up my parent’s driveway after school, grab a couple of melons, take them into the house, and eat them warm, straight off the vine. There was nothing more sweet and delicious, the sunny orange flesh nearly melting in my mouth. My mother had learned to grow cantaloupes (also known as muskmelons) from another small time grower, who probably learned the same way. Via anecdote, the growth and ripening of the plants traveled to the side of our hill, south facing and perfect for cantaloupes.
The best way to tell if a cantaloupe is ripe is to smell the small circle at the base of the melon where the stem used to be. If it smells sweet and delicious, the melon is ripe and ready to go. The thing about cantaloupes is that once they are taken from the vine, they are only ripe a very short time before they break down and decompose. This means that a lot of time in the stores, none of the melons will have this smell. This is because none of them are ripe. They can’t pick them ripe because they would never make the journey to the store in time. If you find a melon with this sweet smell, eat it within a couple or three days, or it will be moldy before you know it. Although, as is often the case with fruits and vegetables, you can lengthen the time until they are too ripe by putting them into the refrigerator.
The other way to tell a cantaloupe is on its way to ripe is the color. Cantaloupes are covered with funny beige lines that look like sea coral. Underneath, if the melon isn’t ripe, it is a sagey, greenish color. Once it ripens, the entire melon turns beige to match the funny lines. A melon without the sweet smell but colored all over that cantaloupe beige color will be ripe very soon. These ones are your best bet if you aren’t planning to eat your melon right away.
What it is it about thumping that so many people find useful? When melons aren’t ripe, their flesh is denser. With honeydews and watermelons, whose rinds contain lots of water, it is easier to tell when thumping on them whether they are dense or not. Not so with cantaloupes. Their rinds are like burlap and not watery at all. Someone who has handled large numbers of them might be able to tell, but the method is not foolproof and often people end up with cantaloupes that need another few weeks to ripen. Use the smell test–it works every time.
That’s the scoop on cantaloupes. Enjoy!