Melons are easily one of my favorite things about late summer. While I am lucky enough to live in an area where we frequently have at least 4 or 5 different melons available all year long in our local grocery stores it is the summer melons that we love the best. Not only are there more varieties of melons in the store (usually at least a dozen) but the melons seem to taste so much better in the summer. As a matter of fact, I think the most perfect food for a hot summer day is a slice of chilled watermelon…with seeds, of course!
Melons have been celebrated and used as food for over 4,000 years, but it is only recently that most areas have started to see more than the "big three" widely available in supermarkets. While there are regional favorites, like the delicate Sprite melon from the Carolinas, when most people think of melon they thing of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew. That is gradually changing as more melons are being introduced to the States and as regional favorites are being shipped all over the world.
There are two main classes of melon, the muskmelons and the watermelons, and each class has a wide range of different varieties in the class. When most people hear "watermelon" they immediately think of a huge thirty pound oval shaped melon with a smooth green striped exterior, pink flesh, and black seeds. And while this is indeed a watermelon, this is only one type of watermelon. Watermelons can be grown in all sorts of shapes and sizes (including the new square ones from Japan) and come in a variety of colors. The flesh can range from white to a deep red, with newer varieties being prized for their deep gold and bright orange colors. Some watermelon varieties have seeds in a wide range of colors, including even green or reddish seeds. Seeds are optional now as many watermelons are available with small soft wide seeds rather than the traditional hard black ones we are used to. The so-called "seedless" watermelon varieties fall into this category and you can either eat or discard the small pale seeds. Watermelon seeds are actually prized in some cultures and are cooked and included in a wide variety of dishes. The rind is also used in a wide variety of sweet and savory dishes, even in the United States. The most popular usage of the rind is probably in watermelon pickles, which were very popular around the turn of the century. Watermelons are in peak season in the United States from mid-June to late August.
When choosing watermelon there are several things you need to look for. If you are buying whole watermelon, look for a symmetrical melon with no indentations, holes, scars, soft areas, cracks, or large spots. There should be a spot on the bottom of the melon where it rested in the field, and this is fine, but it should be pale golden in color and not white. The exterior of the watermelon should be dull rather than shiny and have an evenly balanced color. To see if the melon is ripe, tap it and if it sounds hollow it should be ripe. Whole watermelons should be stored in the refrigerator if possible or in a very cool place.
For cut watermelon, you need to be a bit pickier. Cut watermelon does not retain flavor as well as whole watermelon does. Halved or quartered watermelon should have no blemishes on the skin and be tightly wrapped and refrigerated when you purchase it. Watermelon halves and quarters can usually be refrigerated and stored for a few days with no great loss of quality. Cut watermelon slices and cubes are best eaten within a day or two. When purchasing any cut watermelon, look closely at the flesh. It should be firm and not overly soft or mushy. It should not be grainy, dry looking, or have white edges. If a regular watermelon has lots of white seeds along with the normal brown-black seeds then it was removed from the vine too early and will not have as much flavor. Watermelon should be served very cold for the best flavor.
The second group of melons are muskmelons, and they basically include every type of melon that is not a watermelon. The most common muskmelons are cantaloupes, honeydews, casaba, cranshaw, Juan canary, and Santa Claus melons. Muskmelons are further broken down into two groups, those with smooth skins like the honeydew and those with a netted skin like the cantaloupe. They range in size from slightly larger than a softball to really large 15 pound varieties. They come in a wide range of colors, both on the outside and the inside. The skin can range from a pale grayish white to very dark green and the flesh ranges from the palest of yellows to the brightest of oranges and greens. All muskmelons have hollow seed filled centers rather than seeds dispersed throughout the flesh. Most varieties of muskmelons come into season during the late summer and early-mid fall.
Unlike watermelons, the melons in the muskmelon family vary widely in terms of when they ripen and how to choose the best melon. There are some general things to remember when choosing any of the melons in this family that will ensure you get a great melon. Melons should be heavy for their size and while there is no real way to help you know this at first, the more you try different melons and compare them, the easier it is to judge their relative weight. The melons should always be fragrant when ripe. If you sniff the skin and can smell the flavor of the melon it should be perfect for eating. Most ripe melons in the muskmelon family are slightly soft at the blossom end and should be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Melons will ripen further at room temperature, but there is a limit as to how much they will ripen. The sweetest and most flavorful melons are those picked ripe from the vine and eaten relatively quickly.
For information about specific muskmelons, their flavor, and tips on how to choose a ripe melon, visit our handy Melon Guide.
Regardless of what type of melon you choose, they are very handy to have on hand for entertaining. Halved or quartered melons make great containers for chilled soups, punches, salads, dips, or even flowers. Consider serving a chilled cucumber soup in honeydew or cantaloupe halves, a fruity punch or fruit salad in a watermelon halve, chicken salad in a cantaloupe halve, or a fruit dip in any halved melon. Melon slices or wedges make great garnishes and melon balls add extra interest to ice creams, salads, soups, desserts, and other dishes. Try adding melon to your favorite desserts or salads for fresh summer flavor.
One safety note when working with melons is to always wash the exterior surface well with soap and water right before cutting. While you don't eat the skin, the skin will be touching your knife and cutting boards. The skin is often dirty, and there have even been some recent cases of salmonella contamination from melon skins in the United States.
Here are some of my favorite melon recipes for entertaining. Many can be made with a variety of different melons…use your favorite or what is perfectly ripe at the store.
Cantaloupe, Bacon, Raisin, and Port Salad
Cantaloupe Wedges with Roquefort and Walnuts
Casaba Melon with Coconut Milk
Creamy and Crunchy Melon Salad
Crunchy Melon and Smoked Turkey Salad
Cucumber Melon Soup
Fresh Fruit In Watermelon Basket
Gingered Melon Compote
Honey and Lime Grilled Steaks
Honey Lime Fruit Salad
Hot Pink Lemonade
Melon, Chicken and Arugula Salad
Melon Salad Supreme
Pink Perfection Juice
Prosciutto with Melon and Blueberries
Strawberry-Cantaloupe Salad with Marshmallow Dressing
Vanilla Scented Honeydew and Blueberry Salad