As gardeners, we have all been there. To pick or not to pick? Is it ripe enough? Should I leave it one more day? Or do I take the risk and harvest it now? Valid questions, even for an experienced gardener.
So, to allay any doubts, this article will look at a few general tips to help determine when to harvest eggplants (Solanum melongena), as well as a couple of specific tips for a few popular cultivars.
Visual signs that your eggplant fruit is developing nicely
As the fruit grows, the tips of the calyx “leaves” will peel upwards and away from the fruit. In some cultivars, the skin color will change from greenish-white to purple. These changes are good indicators to start checking your eggplants daily for the most important sign of ripeness in an eggplant: how shiny the skin is.
Skin shines when it’s at its prime
Don’t let the size of the fruit dictate the best time to harvest. The size of the fruit is influenced by environmental conditions and genetics, not ripeness. Instead, learn to identify the four different stages of ripeness by inspecting the shine of the skin.
- STAGE 1: UNDER-RIPE
When the fruit is growing, the skin appears dull, and when cut open, either the seeds are under-developed or not visible at all.
- STAGE 2: RIPE AND READY TO HARVEST
The skin turns glossy and shiny as it reaches maturity. It can be harvested and either left to ripen on the kitchen bench for one more day or eaten the same day.
- STAGE 3: RIPE AND READY TO EAT NOW
The skin turns slightly waxy, at which point it must be harvested and eating straight away. When cut open, the seeds will be creamy white.
- STAGE 4: OVER-RIPE
The waxy skin turns dull as it becomes over-ripe and it will start to show yellow blemishes. When cut open, the seeds will appear brown. These seeds can be dried and used for planting next year’s crop.
When is it time to harvest your eggplants
Put simply, you can harvest the fruit of most Asian, European and white eggplant cultivars at any stage between maximum shine (stage 2) and waxy glow (stage 3). African varieties can also be picked at the breaker stage (stage 1) and ripened off the vine like a tomato.
Another way to check for ripeness is by lightly squeezing the fruit; the amount of ‘give’ will vary according to the cultivar and the thickness of the skin.
I personally find myself comparing one eggplant to another for their shine to get my eye in first, then the waxy ones get thrown straight into a pan for lunch, while shiny ones get a light squeeze to double-check their ripeness, and then harvested and given to friends and family.
Harvest times according to eggplant cultivars
Essentially, determining when to harvest your eggplant will depend on which group the cultivar originates from; European, Asian, White, or African, so this article outlines the signs of ripeness according to these four groups.
The edible seeds are covered in a nicotine alkaloid which gives the fruit (although botanically classified as a berry) a bitter taste. As the fruit becomes over-ripe, these alkaloids are at their peak which causes the bitterness to increase. Therefore, cultivars with fewer or smaller seeds are sweeter in taste.
European eggplant cultivars – when to pick
Many of the European cultivars have thicker skin and either more or larger seeds so are more bitter. They also have a firmer texture than their Asian cousins so when squeezed, they only give a little when ripe. Don’t wait for your eggplants to be the same size as the ones in the supermarket; always let the shine and texture determine the right time to harvest.
Some examples of open-pollinated European cultivars include Black Beauty, Rosita, Bianca, Long Purple and Florida Market.
Asian eggplant cultivars – when to pick
In general, many of the Asian cultivars have very thin skin, so they should be handled carefully. In addition to the shiny or waxy skin, you can also give the eggplant a light squeeze to check its texture. If it’s firm or hard, then it needs more time. If it feels slightly spongey or springy, it’s at its peak for harvest. If you leave an indent or bruise, then it can still be eaten, but its bitter taste will be marginally increased.
There is a much greater variety of Asian cultivars and some of them have specific tell-tale signs of ripeness, a few of which are outlined below.
- PING TUNG EGGPLANT
A classic in Taiwanese cuisine, it has a much thinner skin and smaller seeds which means it’s also less bitter. For this reason, it has a long harvest period since it can be harvested just before its peak shine through to its waxy color without a great change in taste. In most varieties, the Ping Tung Eggplant ripens to a deep purple color before turning waxy.
- THAI EGGPLANT
When growing Thai eggplant, it is essential to know which cultivar you are growing since the four main Thai cultivars are named for their skin color; Thai purple, Thai white, Thai green, and Thai yellow eggplants. Keep in mind that when a white or green eggplant (for example, the cultivar called Kermit) is over-ripe, it turns yellow, hence why knowing which one you have is important. Therefore, skin color, in addition to the skin’s shine or waxiness is a good indicator for when to harvest these golf ball sized eggplants.
White eggplant cultivars – when to pick
A number of white varieties from both Asian and European origins are available. They can be picked when the skin is white and still glossy, then left for one day to continue the ripening process indoors. Like the Asian cultivars, the skin of white eggplants is often very thin. The first sign that a white eggplant is becoming over-ripe is the appearance of tiny brown spots on the skin. Next, the calyx starts to brown off and the skin turns a dark creamy or yellow color.
Some examples of open-pollinated white cultivars include Gretel, Casper, Snowy and White Beauty.
African eggplant cultivars – when to pick
There are two popular species of eggplant that are commercially available. Both are much more flexible in their harvest period since these old-world eggplants can be harvested at the breaker stage (like a tomato) and stored at room temperature for 2 – 4 days to complete the ripening process indoors. Harvesting them at this breaker stage will prevent the skin from getting too thick and tough, especially in sunnier climates.
- SCARLET EGGPLANT, Solanum aethiopicum,
Traditionally eaten raw or cooked, this species of eggplant has a low susceptibility to pests and diseases. They are best harvested when the skin is still green but has a few orange blemishes. They can either be cooked at this stage or ripened further on the kitchen bench until they develop a deeper orange or reddish color, depending on the variety.
- AFRICAN EGGPLANT, Solanum macrocarpon,
The elongated leaves associated with the calyx will shrink around the tennis ball sized fruit as it ripens. Immature fruits are whitish-green and can be harvested once they start showing a rusty tinge. They can be either cooked straight away or left to ripen further, at which point they could range in color from yellow to rusty-brown, depending on the variety.
Harvesting eggplants at their optimal growth stage isn’t an exact science, but you can rest assured that these majestic fruits will be edible regardless of picking them early or late. Pick them too soon and you’ll miss out on larger fruits and stronger flavor, or pick them too late and risk a little bitterness. Either way, there’s no wrong way to do it.