True to its name, watermelon is filled with water, to the tune of 90 percent. In fact, it was first cultivated as a source of water during dry periods in Egypt, where it's been spotted in hieroglyphics. Watermelon is thought to have grown wild in Africa and has long been cultivated in Asia and southern Europe. Native Americans grew watermelon in the 16th century, and African slaves also brought seeds with them to America.
A tender, warm-season crop, watermelon is now grown all over the world. Leading producers are Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, the United States, Egypt and Mexico. In the United States, California and southern states like Florida, Arizona, Georgia and Texas provide the longer growing season and warmer temperatures needed for bumper crops. Watermelons range from a few pounds to the record holder—a 350-pounder grown in a backyard garden in Tennessee.
All that water content helps make watermelon a thirst-quenching, low-calorie treat that also delivers good nutrition. According to the USDA, it's an excellent source of vitamins C and A and a good source of vitamin B6. It provides more lycopene by weight than any other fresh produce, except guava.
Although we enjoy it as a fruit, watermelon is actually a vegetable belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family, along with squash and cantaloupe. There are over 200 varieties of watermelon, in various sizes, shapes, and colors. These varieties fall into a handful of categories: large seeded varieties, hybridized seedless melons, small, portable “ice box” melons, and yellow, orange and white flesh cultivars. Some specific varieties include Sugar Baby, Charleston Gray, Crimson Sweet, and Cotton Candy. Black Diamond, Desert King, Dixie Queen, and Moon and Stars are popular heirloom varieties.
A simple wedge of watermelon is a classic summertime treat, but watermelon is also remarkably versatile. Add it to cold soups, fruit platters, salsa and pickles. Have some fun combining it with other cut up fruits in this Fruit Flower Blossoms treat, or pair its fresh clean taste with salty prosciutto and refreshing mint in this recipe for Summer Melon Salad with Mint and Prosciutto. Another savory recipe, Mojito Watermelon Salad, is a delicious complement to grilled or blackened strip or flank steak. Stir watermelon balls or cubes into a bowl of cottage cheese, or slide them onto a skewer and freeze for several hours for a nutritious snack. Use cookie cutters to cut slices of watermelon into fun shapes for the kids (of any age).
Juicy watermelon makes for delicious and attractive beverages, too, like this Watermelon-Strawberry Lime Cooler. Add it to smoothies, and use it as a basis for summer cocktails. Russians even make a beer from watermelon.
The ultimate no-waste food, every part of the watermelon is edible. Roast the seeds for snacking, and use the hollowed-out rind as a punch bowl, or cut it up and pickle, marinate, or candy it.
Fruits like strawberries, peaches, apricots, pears and blueberries pair well with watermelon, as do cucumbers, red onion and jalapeño peppers. For compatible cheeses, think Brie, feta, bleu, Fontina, and mozzarella. Serve watermelon with chicken or pork, shrimp, salmon, crab and lobster. Sprinkle it with sesame seeds, and season it with black pepper, salt, ginger, mint and tarragon. Pistachios are delicious with watermelon, as is couscous.
Peak season for watermelon is May to August, though you can often find it in the grocery aisle through October, or even year-round if imported from Mexico.
Choose watermelon with a deep color and no white streaks. If you can see the seeds (sometimes watermelon is sold cut rather than whole), they should generally be dark, unless you are selecting a seedless variety in which sometimes tender, immature white seeds are visible. The fruit should be heavy for its size and have a hard rind that's smooth and free of cuts or bruises or dents. Don't worry if the watermelon you're eyeing has a yellowish spot on one side. That's actually a good sign; it's where the melon was resting on the ground and shows that it wasn't harvested prematurely.
Watermelons don't continue to ripen after they're harvested, so you'll want to bring home one that's ready to eat. Explain to other shoppers who are looking at you suspiciously that a ripe watermelon will yield a resonating "thump" when slapped with your open palm.
Wondering about servings? Each pound of watermelon will yield about 1 1/2, 2-cup servings. And a 20-pound watermelon will make about 53 6-ounce wedges.
Store the melon uncut, in a cool place, for up to two weeks. Once cut, wrap in plastic wrap—or place chunks in a covered container—and refrigerate it, cut side up, for up to a week. Wash the watermelon, using a wet washcloth if it's too large to fit in the sink, before cutting.
Watermelon can't be beat for summertime refreshment. Eat it outdoors for full effect, and work on your seed-spitting technique—the current record is 66 feet 11 inches.