Sign up to receive a weekly peek inside our kitchen.

The Whole Ripeness of Fruit

Debra Redalia


Fruit has its whole array of nuances of flavor when ripened on the tree.

I have a memory from very early childhood of my grandfather taking me out into his backyard and lifting me up into the peach tree—right next to a perfectly ripe peach—so I could pick a peach myself. We brought the peach into the house, where my grandmother peeled it and sliced it into a bowl and covered it with white sugar and evaporated milk from a can. Though I have eaten many peaches since, and even many more peaches from that tree, I will never forget that peach, warm and ripe, right off the tree.

I have another memory of a time as an adult when I decided I wanted to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less industrial food. I went to the supermarket and chose various items from the produce department and brought them home. They tasted so terrible I went back to eating processed food.

Over time, I’ve learned where to buy the best organic produce that tastes wonderful, and to grow fruits and vegetables myself in my garden, but recently I learned something about the ripeness of fruit that I want to share with you.

A few months ago I was reading a lot written by and about Alice Waters , since she has been such an influence on me about food. I was also watching her masterclasses at Masterclass.com. One sentence in the masterclass really stood out. She said,

“You can put fruit on the counter to ripen,
but sugar levels won’t increase
once fruit is harvested from the tree.”

Of course that’s true, because harvested fruit is separated from its source and from the context in which it receives it’s sweetness.

I immediately understood the problem with store-bought fruit. All fruit sold in stores—organic or not—is picked before it is ripe because it has to travel from the field to the store. And because of this, all fruit sold in stores will never taste the way it would taste if it were picked ripe.

This was both a revelation to me and disappointment. A revelation because I finally understood that ripe means ripened-on-the-plant, not ripened-on-the-countertop. Buying unripe fruit at the store and then brining it home and letting it ripen does not give you the same flavor. It’s not the whole flavor. It’s missing the sweetness of ripening on the tree.

Just after reading this, the raspberries in my garden suddenly came into season . The thing about raspberries is that they tell you when they are ripe. I actually cannot pick an unripe raspberry off my canes. They just won’t come off. When raspberries are perfectly ripe, they fall off into my hand when I touch them. And I just don’t eat them unless they fall into my hand. Like a gift. Likewise, ripe fruit will fall off a tree. And when I put those raspberries into my mouth, the flavor was intense and sweet.

I had been buying little boxes of organic raspberries from our local produce stand and the difference between my garden raspberries and the packaged raspberries was immense. Even though the boxed raspberries were organic, each one was identical to the others and they had little flavor. My garden raspberries we each unique and were bursting with flavor.

We are so accustomed to eating fruit that is picked before it’s time that I think for the most part we don’t even know what ripe fruit tastes like.

Once I had this experience of really tasting the flavor of ripe raspberries, I went searching for ripe fruit. I thought for sure it would be at the farmer’s market because I had purchased some wonderful ripe peaches at my local farmer’s market in the past.

I did find perfectly ripe strawberries. They don’t last long, but I’ve learned if I bring them home and immediately put them in a sealed container in the refrigerator they will last the week until it’s time to go to the farmer’s market again. A ripe strawberry is red through and though. Store-bought strawberries are white inside because they are not ripe. Yet that’s all we see at the store so we think that is a strawberry. No it isn’t. It’s an unripe strawberry.

But the peaches and the apricots—which are in season now—are all picked too soon. I buy them so I have fruit to eat, and let them sit on my countertop until they get soft. But now I know that getting soft doesn’t mean getting sweeter, as they would if they were still on the tree.

I have another memory of a morning when I first moved here to live with Larry’s family. It was a cold autumn morning. We have a number of heirloom apple trees on the property that Larry’s father had planted over the years. When I went to the breakfast table, a single apple was sitting on my plate. It was still cold from the night air. When I bit into it, it was crisp and sweet. I had never before eaten an apple right off the tree. This was an apple.

We are missing so much when we buy only food produced by the industrial food system sold through commercial channels. In stores we buy food altered by industry to fit the industrial food system, bred for travel and shelf life instead of flavor and nutrition. Their number one concern is running the food through their industrial system, and not the end result of enjoyment and nutrition for the customer who purchases it.

My conclusion is that if you want truly ripe fruit, you need to grow it in your own garden or get it from a neighbor or farmer who is harvesting it at the perfect point of ripeness. This applies to vegetables too. A ripe tomato ripens on the vine and the difference is like night and day.

Degrees of Ripeness

I had the pleasure of viewing a series of masterclasses with Alice Waters at Masterclass.com.

The class on fruit changed my entire idea of ripeness.

Alice has amazing perception of food. I could see from her comments that in her mind fruit is not just fruit-as-it-is-in-the-moment. No. Fruit is a timeline of ripeness, from not-quite-ripe to perfectly-ripe to over-ripe and she uses each degree of ripeness in a different way.

Alice will go through a box of fruit and separate them according to their ripeness.

Under-ripe fruit might get mixed with other ingredients, as in a salad of lettuce and under-ripe pear with nuts and vinegaratte. Or it might become a sorbet or granita, where the addition of sugar brings the fruit closer to it’s natural sweetness when ripe. See my Super Strawberry Granita I made after learning this.

Over-ripe fruit is almost jam already and could easily be used to make preserves or used in a quick sauce.

It’s the perfectly-ripe fruit Alice looks for because these are desserts in and of themselves.

My grandmother used to say, “Have a piece of fruit,” when I would ask for dessert. And indeed, she would eat a piece of fruit after lunch and dinner. My grandfather hauled produce in the Central Valley of California, so he was always bringing home whole boxes of fruit.

But I never really understood fruit as nature’s perfect dessert until I listened to Alice talk about fruit.

When you eat a perfectly ripe piece of fruit you will understand this. Everything else we think of as dessert is secondary to nature’s dessert.

In her masterclass, Alice mentioned Barhi dates. I had never eaten a Barhi date, but since Alice loves them I kept my eyes open for them, and found them at my local farmer’s market. I bought half a dozen. She was right, of course. A Barhi date is, well, it is like the most perfect caramel, except better because it’s made by nature instead of a factory. And—unlike industrial desserts where you want to eat the whole bag of candy—one date completely satisfied me. I still have the other five dates in their little brown bag. sitting on the shelf waiting for me to want another one. I’m still experiencing the satisfaction of that one date.

Alice knows what a ripe fruit looks like and smells like and taste like. A ripe pear, she says, should be kind of juicy. Look at the stems of grapes—brown stems indicate the grapes have been picked some time ago even if they look fresh. I’ve learned so much about ripeness simply by using all my senses to observe the fruit.

Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Fruit Bowl

I have never eaten the fruit bowl at Chez Panisse. Last time I ate at Chez Panisse was 5 March 2020. I saw the Fruit Bowl on the menu, but didn’t understand why exactly I should order it, so I ordered the cake with candied kumquats and fresh citrus fruits instead.

Well, I should have ordered the Fruit Bowl, because the next week we all went into shelter-in-place and I’ve been waiting ever since to go back and have the Fruit Bowl.

While sheltering-in place I read Alice Waters’ autobiography Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook , Alice says this about fruit:

I was thinking about…what constitutes a First Growth designation for a wine, the Premier Cru classification. How do they decide which wine deserves that highest designation? It all has to do with terroir. If a particular grape varietal is planted o a certain hillside and is tended in a certain way, you get a transcendent result. I was thinking that there must be a similar Premier Cru for peaches. There’s a terroir for peaches, where if the right varietals are planted in the right spots, they can be the greatest peaches of all…It’s a combination of varietal and terroir and, obviously, a farmer who knows exactly the right moment to pick them.

And then I read SFGATE: Housemade: Legend of the Chez Panisse fruit bowl explained.

And now I can’t wait until Chez Panisse opens again so I can go experience the fruit bowl.