A well-ripened cantaloupe is a glorious thing, honey-sweet and juicy with colorful and deeply aromatic flesh. Canny shoppers are familiar with the visual and sensory cues that identify a ripe melon, one that's ready to eat or will be after a few days on the counter. Occasionally, though, even melon gurus can become impatient and cut into a melon that isn't quite ready for prime time. When that happens the melon won't ripen further, but it can still be improved.
Cantaloupes and Ripening
Some fruit are picked while immature and then gassed to force-ripen them just before reaching market. Melons aren't well suited to that technique because they don't develop any further sweetness once they're picked. However, cantaloupes -- unlike most melons -- can be ripened by exposure to the ethylene gas that bananas, apples and some other fruits emit. This creates the perception of greater sweetness because it softens their flesh and makes them more aromatic and flavorful. Unfortunately, that process stops once they're cut.
A Closer Look at Ripening
The reason for that unfortunate reality becomes clear if you look more closely at the ripening process. The sweet flesh of cantaloupes, like other fruit, is intended to act as a fuel supply for the melon's seeds when they sprout and grow new melons. When the cantaloupe ripens and falls -- or is picked -- from its vine, it's not dead but simply entering the final stage in its ripening process. As long as it remains intact, it will continue to grow juicier, lusher and more fragrant. This prepares it to break down quickly and fertilize its cargo of seeds, a process that begins when you cut the melon.
Working with a Cut Melon
If you've cut open a melon and found it to be underripe and disappointing, you still have a few options. To begin with, the natural enzymes that break down a melon and turn it to compost will soften it slightly even as it rests in the refrigerator. That softens and improves the texture, though it'll do little for its flavor. You can help your cause by slicing or dicing the melon and giving it some assistance. Toss it with lemon or orange juice, a sprinkling of sugar, sweet white wine or your favorite fruit-flavored liqueur. You can maximize the flavor of any melon, ripe or not, by bringing it back to room temperature before you serve it.
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Choosing the Best
It's best to avoid the whole sorry situation by learning the signs of a ripe melon. Your nose is one of your best allies in that quest. A melon that's odorless will usually be flavorless, while a melon that smells ripe and fragrant probably tastes that way, too. The stem end should be smooth and round, without stray fibers that show it was reluctant to be picked. The opposite, or blossom, end should have a small amount of "give" but not be soft or mushy.
Cantaloupe should be heavy for their size, which tells you they're juicy. Avoid melons that smell fermented, have soft spots or are deeply bruised. Those are usually overripe. The skin under the netting should be a pale tan color, with little green. A green hue generally shows that the melon isn't quite ready yet.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.