Melons seem like they’ve been perfectly engineered for summertime. Light and refreshing, they are right at home on the breakfast table or packed in the cooler for a poolside snack. “Melons are low in calories, filling and a natural source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They make a great part of an overall healthy diet,” says Hank Dart, who works in prevention and control for Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
One reason melons are so revitalizing is because of their sky-high water content: Many are about 90 percent H2O. Living up to its name, watermelons’ percentage is even higher. That’s especially important on scorching hot days when maintaining a steady intake of water is crucial to combating dehydration, which can lead to headaches, fatigue, fainting or worse. “We mostly think about beverages when it comes to hydration, but the water we get from food also counts toward that — though it isn’t quite as easy to quantify or consume as drinking a glass of water,” Dart says. “It’s part of why we like melons so much during the summer.”
Even with their abundance of water, these fruits are also full of flavor and nutrients. The exact nutritional breakdown varies a bit from melon to melon, but in general, all are great sources of potassium, vitamin C and fiber. They also contain sugar — but that’s not a bad thing. “The sugar found in fruit isn’t like drinking a can of soda,” Dart says. “You also get fiber, vitamins and minerals, along with the fruit sugars. That’s why we promote whole fruit rather than fruit juice, because it retains the fiber. Plus, whole fruit is much more filling.”
Melons of all kinds are at their peak right now, so July is the perfect month to try something new. Crenshaw melons bring some spice, casaba melons taste like cucumbers, and sprite melons are sweet as sugar. Buying a melon can be daunting, though: They can weigh 10 pounds or more, and it takes some work to cut through the rind. Regardless of the type, there are a few things to look for to ensure you’re picking out a ripe one. The best of the bunch will be fragrant and heavy for their size with skin that is free of cracks or bruises. And tapping a watermelon with your palm really does help determine its ripeness: Listen for a hollow sound. Grilling thick slices of watermelon on the barbecue caramelizes the natural sugar and infuses the fruit with a great smoky flavor.
“When it comes to what we eat, a largely plant-based diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables and whole grains is best. Melons — with their eye-catching colors and great taste — make easy, healthy additions to summer menus that our friends and family are likely to love as much as we do,” Dart says.
There’s a lot of history and geography packed into this pastel-colored pleasure: Though the melon itself probably came from India, the word “cantaloupe” is a French derivation of a town located in central Italy. It is also known as muskmelon, rockmelon (Australia) and spanspek (South Africa), and today it’s one of the most popular melons in the United States. Besides imparting a sweet, floral taste, cantaloupes are excellent sources of potassium and vitamins A and C, and some research suggests they also have anti-inflammatory properties. Wrap cantaloupe in prosciutto for a simple but elegant appetizer.
“Sweet” and “round” are two words that are closely associated with melons, but crenshaws could also accurately be described as “spicy” and “pointy.” With casaba and Persian melons as their parent plants, these hybrids are similar in shape and color to lemons, but they can weigh in at 10 pounds or more. Crenshaws’ spicy undertones and lush interior promises to perk up any fruit tray and add a little glamour too: This heirloom variety is known as the Cadillac of melons. It’s also a fine source of vitamins A and C.
Spare a thought for the long-suffering honeydew: the brushed-off buffet offering, the punch line of the melon family. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that cantaloupes outsell honeydews at a rate of five to one, even though the former is far more expensive. Under-ripe and over-ripe honeydews are most likely to blame for their poor reputation, but mid-summer finds them at their peak and poised for redemption. The best ones are more yellow than green, heavy for their size and have a pronounced floral scent. Now is the time to give this underdog another try.
Though it looks like a watermelon in miniature, Santa Claus melons are more comparable to honeydews. Or toads, if you take a cue from its Spanish name — piel de sapo — meaning “toad skin,” a nod to its mottled green exterior. Though they originated in Spain, Santa Claus melons are now grown in Central and South America, as well as in Arizona and California. The reference to St. Nick speaks to the melon’s longevity: It can last up to six weeks longer than most other kinds of melons — just about up to the holidays if you were to buy the fruit near the end of its season. The flesh is pale green and firm with a subtly sweet flavor.
Over the hundreds of years that watermelons have been grown, the number of variations on the fruit has grown along with it. From seedless (the most common) to square shaped (popular in Japan for taking up less room in refrigerators) to ones with white flesh (Cream of Saskatchewan) to ones with black rinds that sell for hundreds of dollars apiece (Densuke), this summertime staple is enjoyed throughout the world. For a fruit that’s more than 90 percent water, it brings a surprising amount of nutrition. Tomatoes seem to get all the good press for lycopene — an antioxidant thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease — but by some estimates, watermelons contain up to 40 percent more of it.
In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.