Down & Dirty: Melons

August  3, 2012

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

Did you know that melons are in the same family -- Cucurbitaceae -- as cucumbers, winter squash, and zucchini? Their leaves, flowers, and stems are all similar, though of course the end product is very different. (And no, you can't cross-pollinate a pattypan squash with a honeydew!) Today we're talking all about melons, to give you plenty to think about next time you lug one home from the farmers' market.

A quick word about ripeness: because melons have no external signifiers of ripeness -- size can vary dramatically and the outer skin doesn't change in appearance -- it's hard to tell when they're fully mature. While plenty of people swear by a quick knuckle-rap on a melon's surface, the best way to tell is by turning the melon over: if the yellow-brown patch where the melon lay on the soil is pronounced, large, and dirty, it's a good sign that it has been growing for a while! Try it next time you buy a melon -- I bet it'll work for you.

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1. Watermelon - Evidence of watermelon plants have been found in the Nile Valley dating back to Egyptian times -- King Tut's tomb had watermelon seeds in it! In the centuries since, watermelon has spread to all parts of the world. But the watermelon you think of when you imagine the fruit is the one developed by USDA horticulturist Charles Fredric Andrus in 1954. Called the "Charleston Gray," it was bred for its large size, sturdiness (for ease of shipping), black seeds, and uniformly pink flesh. While you can find heritage breeds of watermelon at farmers' markets that have light green, dark green, or striped exteriors and flesh ranging from orange to white, the watermelons you find at the grocery store are almost always Charleston Gray descendants.

2. Honeydew - With pale green or white flesh and a smooth, waxy yellow-white surface, honeydew varieties include crenshaws, casabas, and winter melons. The varieties we see most often originated in the south of France as the White Antibes cultivar of the species. As they ripen, honeydews become heavy with their sugars and can even become sticky and spotted on the outside -- this is a good thing! Unlike the soft structure of a watermelon's flesh or the rich feel of a ripe cantaloupe, honeydew flesh is crisp and clean. (The Muppets character Dr. Bunsen Honeydew is so named because his head looks like one!)

3. Cantaloupe - Cantaloupes were first culviated in Iran thousands of years ago. The English name "Cantaloupe," however, orignates in the Italian papal county of Cantalupo that is the supposed spot where it was introduced to Europe. When you've found a good cantaloupe, you should be able to smell its heady, tropical scent from yards away -- their buttery, juicy flesh is best when it's nearly overripe.

4. Seeds, Take 1 - Watermelon seeds are scattered inside the fruit's flesh. The seeds can range from white to black, which is a function of maturity -- the black seeds are ready to grow into new watermelons. (If you've ever purchased a "seedless" watermelon, you've probably encountered the empty seed coats inside.)

5. Seeds, Take 2 - Cantaloupe and honeydew seeds are helpfully bound together in the middle of the plant and can be easily removed with a spoon. (They're of a different genus than watermelons, although still in the melon family.)

Melon seeds, like all cucurbit seeds, are edible! Kitchen Butterfly brought us ground melon seeds from Nigeria to use in Sasha (Global Table Adventure)'s Smoked Turkey Stewed in West African "Gravy." They can also be roasted and enjoyed as a snack, just like pumpkin seeds.

Melons can skew savory as well as they skew sweet. (Francis Lam at Gilt Taste even caramelizes his watermelon!) Here are a few of our favorite recipes -- you can find many more here.


Cantaloupe Soup

Honeydew Sorbet

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nitya
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  • Nozlee Samadzadeh
    Nozlee Samadzadeh
I'm Nozlee Samadzadeh, a writer, editor, farmer, developer, and passionate home cook. Growing up Iranian in Oklahoma, working on a small-scale organic farm, and cooking on a budget all influence the way I cook -- herbed rice dishes, chicken fried steak, heirloom tomato salad, and simple poached eggs all make appearances on my bright blue kitchen table. I love to eat kimchi (homemade!) straight from the jar and I eat cake for breakfast.


nitya October 14, 2013
Quite interesting. In fact, in India we eat spiced melon seeds and cantaloupe seeds are used to thicken gravies and gives a creamy texture to it.Both honeydew and cantaloupe are savored in summer and the seeds are sun dried and used in many recipes like the one mentioned about and in a milk based drink called Thandai
vvvanessa August 6, 2012
I was at at dinner recently where someone was introduced to a watermelon and feta salad for the first time, and at first he was skeptical, but after studying the bowl of salad for a moment, he said, "Well, I guess it's like eating cucumbers and feta." Apparently, he was a gardener, and he enjoyed every bite.

I've been really glad to see in the last couple of years (here in the San Francisco Bay Area) the Piel de Sapo melons, which I know from Spain; in season, they are the only thing my extended family eats for dessert. If you see them in your area, I recommend trying one!

Shalini August 4, 2012
I absolutely love this post Nozlee, and am totally fascinated by the cucurbit family, and melons in particular! The facts you've put together about the seeds as well as the photos of the ripe melons are beautiful.
Nozlee S. August 4, 2012
Just wait til I start talking about summer squash next week -- I could blather on about cucurbits forever!
cookingProf August 3, 2012
So many interesting cucurbit facts I didn't know. Thanks, Nozlee!
cookingProf August 3, 2012
So many interesting cucurbit facts I didn't know. Thanks, Nozlee!