Sweet, fragrant, and brimming with juice, melons are the original thirst quencher. Since they’ve been cultivated for thousands of years, they come in an amazing range of sizes, colors and shapes. The most popular type sold in the US is the orange-fleshed cantaloupe, which is actually a type of muskmelon, or netted melon. (True cantaloupes are smaller and available mostly in Europe and the Middle East.) Other grocery-store standards include the honeydew, a reliably sweet green-fleshed melon, and of course, numerous varieties of watermelons. But increasingly, more unusual types are found in local farmer’s markets from August through early autumn. Some, such as the Charentais, with its dark orange flesh and musky aroma, don’t ship well and are best bought locally. Other exotically-named varieties you might find include the slightly spicy Crenshaw, the super-sweet white fleshed Canary, or the aptly named Tangerine Dream watermelon.
Choosing the best melon is the subject of much debate among connoisseurs. Some inspect the exterior pattern of netting, while others probe the stem end for softness. Still others weigh melons in their hands, or knock on them as if listening for some mysterious answer. While there is no sure way to determine optimal ripeness besides cutting into the flesh, there are a few helpful tips. All melons should feel heavy for their size and firm (but not rock hard). With honeydew and other winter melons, the blossom end should be slightly soft. When choosing a muskmelon like cantaloupe, your nose might offer the best clue — they should smell fragrant and fruity. Unlike stone fruits, melons don’t continue to ripen after being picked. Though they won’t get any sweeter, storing them at room temperature for a few days will make them juicier. If beginning to soften, transfer a ripe melon to the refrigerator and eat within a day or two. Watermelons are best when served chilled.
With a high water content, melon offer a wealth of nutrients including vitamin C and potassium, as well as fiber. Like cousins pumpkins or butternut squash, orange-fleshed varieties of melons contain beta-carotene. Red watermelons contain the highest level of the antioxidant lycopene per serving of any fruit or vegetable. Honeydew melon provides zeaxanthin, a carotenoid that protects eye health.
What to Do with Melons
Simply sliced and served without any adornment — think of the pure pleasure of a watermelon wedge on a hot day–melons are also delicious in appetizers, salads, frozen desserts, drinks and even main courses. To use in recipes, first trim the melon flat on both ends and stand upright. Following the curve of the fruit, cut away the peel with a large, sharp knife. Then halve lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. If using watermelon, choose a seedless variety to save yourself the trouble.
Floral-smelling orange-fleshed varieties like cantaloupe, Crenshaw, or Charentais melons pair well with salty cured meat. A perennial favorite on the hors d’oeuvres plate (and one that couldn’t be easier to prepare) is melon slices wrapped with prosciutto. You can substitute any type of cured meat with good results: try Serrano ham, or, for the kids, regular old deli ham.
Melons also pair well with acidic ingredients, like citrus and wine. For a simple and elegant dessert, use a melon baller to scoop honeydew or any type of orange-fleshed melon into wine glasses. Top with a sparkling white wine such as Prosecco or Moscato and serve sprinkled with thinly sliced basil or mint leaves. To make a refreshing and ridiculously easy sorbet, cut a ripe melon into cubes and freeze until solid, then purée in a food processor until smooth. Re-freeze until solid, and then scoop into bowls. Or, for a simple (and healthy) weeknight dessert or breakfast, serve melon slices drizzled with a mixture of honey, plain yogurt and a squeeze of lime, then top with a handful of chopped pistachios or hazelnuts.
Melons are also a natural fit with salads. Combine any type of orange melon or watermelon with cubed seedless cucumber, sliced red onion and lime juice. Season with salt and toss with chopped fresh herbs like cilantro, basil or mint. If you like, serve topped with crumbled feta, queso fresco or shaved ricotta salata.
Melons also make the base for refreshing soups. Try pureeing an orange-fleshed melon with hot chili paste, lime juice and salt, then chill and serve with grilled shrimp. Or make watermelon gazpacho — substitute part or all watermelon for tomatoes in your favorite recipe. In fact, melons, particularly red watermelon, can be substituted for tomatoes with good success in many recipes. Swap them for tomatoes in salsa: combine finely chopped watermelon with cilantro, white onion, lime juice and Serrano pepper and spoon over grilled fish or fish tacos.
Of course, to quench your thirst on a hot summer day, ice-cold watermelon is the hands down winner. For an upgrade on plain old wedges, sprinkle sliced or cubed chilled watermelon with a pinch of salt–which brings out the sweetness–and a mild chili powder. Then squeeze a fresh-squeezed lime juice over it and enjoy.
Recipes to Try
Honeydew Melon and Cilantro Ice Pops (pictured above)
Abigail Chipley is a freelance recipe developer, writer and cooking teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.