Make room in the fridge for these fruits that offer a slice of summer.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Watermelon hits its prime in August, sweetening backyard barbecues, lazy-day picnics on the grass, and beach parties. It boasts an unbeatable combination for long, hot days: It’s colorful, sweet, crunchy, refreshing, and portable. In addition to quenching thirst― watermelon is 92 percent water―it provides hefty doses of vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and lycopene (a disease-fighting antioxidant found in red fruits and vegetables).

Watermelon’s appeal dates back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians commemorated watermelons in hieroglyphics. Thought to originate in Africa’s Kalahari Desert, watermelons probably were introduced to America by African slaves, according to John Egerton, author of Southern Food. Today, China produces the majority of the world’s crop. In the United States, Florida leads the way in watermelon production, followed by California, Texas, and Georgia.

More than 1,200 watermelon varieties exist, including rare white-fleshed watermelon, but you’ll likely find four or five different kinds in the grocery store. If you’re only familiar with 30-pounders that require their own refrigerator shelf, be on the lookout for newer, hybrid mini watermelons. The thin-rind Dulcinea PureHeart, for example, combines the fruit’s best traits―sweet, deep red, seedless flesh―in a cantaloupe-sized package.

Watermelon has surprising versatility. Aside from its traditional uses as a refreshing snack or dessert, it fits nicely into the recipes for salsas, relishes, salads, and beverages we feature here. Even the rind is edible (as in Pickled Watermelon Rind).

Selection and Storage

• Choose firm, symmetrical, unblemished melons without cracks or soft spots.

• Some people swear by the “thump” test (if thumping the melon creates a hollow sound, it’s good), but experts say that method is unreliable for determining ripeness. Rather, look for a pale yellow patch, indicating where the watermelon sat on the ground while ripening on the vine.

• Store uncut watermelon at room temperature for up to one week. If serving it chilled, refrigerate for eight to 10 hours.

• Wash and dry the rind before cutting to prevent bacterial contamination.

• After slicing, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to four days (longer exposure to the cold will turn the flesh mushy).

• When buying precut watermelon, look for deep color, dark seeds with flesh firmly attached to seeds (unless it’s seedless), and sweet, fruity fragrance.