Melon lovers are lucky they don’t live in the 15th century. Ken Albala, author of Eating Right in the Renaissance, writes, “Nothing in the Renaissance mind could be considered more delicious and dangerous than a sweet, ripe, juicy melon.” In Food: The History of Taste, Paul Freedman proposes that this fear of eating melon in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may have existed precisely because melons are so sweet and delectable — an uncommon delicacy in a time when good health was equated with a balance of the body’s “humours.” If you did indulge in eating melon, it was deemed important to also eat counterbalancing foods to correct the dangers of melon. For example, one Renaissance writer suggested combining melon with salty meats, such as prosciutto, and cheeses. The pairing has stood the test of time.
Melon’s sweetness also lends itself to savory dishes that feature hot spices, such as ginger, chiles or black pepper. The refreshing quality of melons makes them a good foil for rich cream and nuts. Melon purées work well in cocktails made with sweet liqueurs and sparkling wines. Citrus, especially lime juice, boosts the honeyed notes in many melons.
All melons are high in vitamins, especially vitamin C, and contain some soluble fiber and numerous trace nutrients. Many are high in potassium and carotenoids, and red-fleshed watermelons have more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes.
Melons belong to three main families. Muskmelons, which include the American cantaloupe, are aromatic with a roughly netted skin that should be washed before being cut. European cantaloupes, or true cantaloupes, have easily recognizable dark green grooves in their gray-green skins. Hard-rinded and less aromatic winter melons, such as honeydews and casabas, are ready to eat in late summer and fall. You’ll also find numerous crosses among these groups — such as Crenshaws, which are a cross of casaba and cantaloupe.
Watermelons constitute a fourth, botanically unrelated group, and nearly all parts of the fruit are edible. Try roasting the seeds or pickling the rind, minus the hard green skin, for snacks. Fermentation expert Sandor Katz writes that he prefers watermelon rind pickles over cucumber pickles.
The hundreds of variously colored and textured melon varieties available today range in flavor from vegetal and cucumber-y (‘Golden Beauty,’ a casaba) to heavily honeyed (‘Charentais,’ a European cantaloupe). Their texture can be crisp (watermelons) or creamy (‘Sharlyn,’ a hybrid of cantaloupe and honeydew). Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers 150 open-pollinated melon varieties, including several that grow well almost anywhere.
The hands-down employee favorite at Baker Creek is the ‘Crane’ melon, a Crenshaw type with pale orange flesh that the company’s catalog describes as “very sweet and fine-flavored.”
Baker Creek’s founder, Jere Gettle, favors the ‘Orangeglo’ watermelon, which ripens early. It is often described by customers as “the best-tasting watermelon ever.”
He also likes ‘Ali Baba’ watermelons for their long-keeping quality and superb “sweet and luscious” flavor.
How to choose: Select heavy fruits with no soft spots or flat sides. The flavor of most melons (except winter melons) does not improve after harvest, so make sure they are ripe. Softer melons should have no remnant of stem left. An attached, jagged stem is a telltale sign that the melon was picked unripe. The stem spot should be aromatic and slightly soft. Harder melons should resonate like a drum when thumped. Watermelon skin should be dull and have a yellow undertone that indicates ripeness.
How to use: Melons are mostly used for fresh eating, and their flavors are fullest at room temperature. They work well in cocktails, frozen desserts, salads, salsas, smoothies and soups. Watermelon seeds can be roasted, and the rinds (except for the hard green skin) can be pickled. Melon purées should be refrigerated until used to minimize oxidation.
How not to lose: Store whole melons at room temperature — even watermelons, which develop more lycopene at room temperature. Any leftover cut melon should be wrapped or sealed in a container and refrigerated. Most uncut melon will last up to 10 days at room temperature, and about five days if cut and refrigerated.
Read more: Learn how to make frozen desserts for the summer, including ice cream, sorbet and more, in Discover the Many Delicious Types of Frozen Desserts.
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