How to Choose a Mango

Here's how to pick the best mangoes — and why mail-ordering them from Florida is always a great option.

May in South Florida is a sad time for vegetable gardeners; it's when we put our beds to rest to weather the coming summer heat. But it's an exciting time for fruit lovers, given that this month is also typically the beginning of mango season. Our local groves and backyard trees, dozens upon dozens of early-, mid-, and late-season varieties — just a smidgen of the more than 2,000 varieties in the world — are our pride and joy.

After living on a historic grove for two decades in the middle of urban Miami, I learned a lot about mangoes. The 14 trees I harvested every summer didn't wait for me to pick them; they rained down their fruit whenever the panicles, or stems, were ready to release them. Every morning I'd wake up to a fragrant, colorful Easter egg hunt of perfectly ripe mangoes, ready to be eaten out of hand or used in any hundreds of ways.

Young Woman Choosing Mango in Grocery Store. Concept of healthy food, bio, vegetarian, diet.
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But that's not the case for the mangoes you find in the grocery stores. You're not seeing Florida Hadens or any of our other better varieties, dense with juice, every size and color from a tiny palm-sized purple to a huge green football. Decades ago, the Unite States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed imports of cheaper fruit from abroad, which ruined the domestic industry.

Today, what you see in the stores — even in Miami — are generally two types of mangoes coming in from Central and South America: the hardy Tommy Atkins, which resembles a paler version of what you think a mango generally looks like, and the tiny, golden Champagne (also known as Ataulfo).

These have dominated the American market for a few reasons. They travel well. They can be harvested half-grown to comply with guidelines (imported mangoes need to be under a pound), after which they're usually forcibly ripened with gases. They can withstand hot-water treatments to kill the eggs of foreign fruit flies.

All of this can make for a sub-par mango. But while mail-ordering mangoes from Florida (or Hawaii) groves is paramount in terms of quality, it can be pricey. So the next best bet is to follow these guidelines to choose the best mango at the supermarket.

Spicy Mango Salad - mango pieces in a bowl with red flakes
Nayck B Feliz

Get the Recipe: Spicy Mango Salad

How to Choose a Good Mango

Tip #1: Weigh Them

You can do this with your eyes and hands, by finding what feels and looks like the largest mango in the pile, or you can literally use a scale to do comparisons. But because mangoes from abroad are often picked undeveloped, the heavier one is, the more mature it was at the time of harvest.

Incidentally, you can tell if a mango was raised to its full potential when you cut into it. The pit should be of substantial size, roughness, and hardness. Mango pits are so dense that the flesh sticks to them, and one of the things we do in Florida (and elsewhere that mangoes grow) is to suck on them to get every shred of sweetness off. But with supermarket mangoes, you'll often see little slivers of pits that knives easily cut into instead.

Tip #2: Smell Them

A ripe mango has a beautiful, intense fragrance. It's one of those fruits that has an unmistakable perfume, and if you're sensitive to smells, too many of them together can even be overwhelming. However, you'll often notice no aroma whatsoever in a pile of supermarket mangoes.

If you're looking for a mango to eat sooner rather than later, sniff the stem end. If you pick up any hint of sweetness, it's more towards ripe than not. If it smells piney, it's still very green.

Tip #3: Look for Sap

Close to harvest, mango stems produce sap which almost invariably drips onto the mango, although many producers try to prevent it in various ways. Sometimes this sap causes dark spots or lines at the tip of the mango, called sap burn. Consumers might mistake this for fruit rot. But for a savvy mango hunter, it's actually a sign that the mango was more mature at the time of reaping.

Do note, though, that mangoes are related to poison ivy. If you're very sensitive to poison ivy, this sap, which runs sticky and clear, might also cause you to break out into a painful or itchy rash.

Tip #4: Feel Them

A ripe mango should have a slight give but no real soft spots. As mentioned, mangoes fall when they're ripe; they don't wait to be picked. So a large blemish could indicate that it had fallen and was collected rather than harvested. It doesn't make it any less edible, but such a bruise will change the consistency of the fruit.

Speaking of texture, a ripe mango should have a silken, velvety texture with some resistance from fiber — similar to a peach, nectarine, or apricot. It's a stone fruit, after all. If it's mushy, grainy, sandy, and pear-like, as I once heard a chef describe a mango, then it's been picked way too young and forcibly ripened. That's not the correct mouthfeel for a ripe mango.

Try Them Green

Keep in mind that you can also eat mangoes green, as people in the tropics do the world over, from the Caribbean to Asia. Green mangoes don't have much taste at all, but the flavor isn't the point. The crisp texture is. Depending on where you're from, you might like to complement it with any one of the following acids: lime juice, fish sauce, salt and vinegar, or chile sauce.

Try Them Seasoned

Chile sauce and chile seasoning mixtures are also popular condiments to pair with ripe mangoes. If you see a mango vendor on a city street corner peeling the fruit as it whirls around on a stick, carving it into a shape (usually a flower), and seasoning it, I highly recommend sampling it. Such mango aficionados always have access to better fruit, and our job is not to wonder why but to simply enjoy their connections — and their expertise.

Cut and Peel Mangoes Yourself

As for cutting mangoes at home, don't bother with commercialized mango pitters. Mangoes come in so many shapes and sizes that they are almost completely useless (unless you have your own tree that gives you the ideal fruit for it).

A sharp, serrated knife ­— mangoes have thick, slippery skin, so serrated works best — and a cutting board that catches escaping juices is just about all you need. You can also place paper towels or a dish towel under your board to keep mango juice from running in all directions.

When I was slicing up hundreds of pieces of fruit per day, I skipped the cutting board completely and just topped my granite countertop with thick wads of paper towels. But I don't recommend this method unless your counters are knife-proof and you're very sure of yourself with both mangoes and knife.

Tropical Grill, How to Cut a Mango

How to Cut a Mango

Stand the mango up on its flattest ovoid end, whichever that is, stem or otherwise (it can vary by mango). Then slice off its large cheeks as close to the pit as possible, just right and left of the centerline. Do the same for the remaining smaller sides. (Save the pit to suck on for later.)

For the large cheeks, you can "hedgehog" them — score them horizontally and vertically without breaking the skin. Then push the cheek inside out for a decorative presentation, or cut them off as chunks. Or you can peel the skin from the cheeks and slice the mango thinly, fanning out the pieces on a plate. I find this method more difficult and fussier, but it's a pretty presentation.

You can also use what's called a mango fork to stabilize it on a cutting board and help you cut or peel it. A three-tined utensil with a long "middle finger," these fruit forks used to be popular around the 1920 and 1930s, then went out of style. But as mangoes have become more available around the world, some manufacturers have put them back into the market.

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Mango Fruit Fork Set of 4

Mango Fruit Fork Set (4)

Eating Mangoes in the Wild

Want to buy and eat a mango but have no utensils? During overwhelming seasons, I'd bring cases of ripe mangoes to school with me and hand them out. My students would roll them on their desks until the pulp was practically liquid inside, then tear a small hole in them with their teeth and "drink" the mango. You can drain a ripe mango in seconds this way, leaving behind the skin like a deflated balloon with the pit still rattling inside it.

One caveat, though, if you're going to do this: Make sure the mango is washed. Even mangoes that are picked from trees need to be cleaned. You never know who (or what) has been handling them, where they've fallen, or what they've encountered on their way to you.

And if you do want to mail-order mangoes, the season runs from May until October, with late-season varieties finally exhausting themselves just as the avocados start coming in — and we start planting our gardens again.

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