If you're really lucky, you live in a city with a year-round farmers' market, but even if you do, this is the time of year when farmers' markets start really picking up. Ramps, asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, peas, and new potatoes are all approaching their peak here in New York, not to mention the tomatoes, plums, apples, and wild mushrooms we still have to look forward to.
Here are 7 tips to help you make the most of your visit to the farmers' market.
1. Shop Around
As tempting as those heirloom tomatoes or that huge stalk of brussels sprouts looks on the first table, even at a farmers' market, location is everything. At larger markets, you can expect the stalls nearest the entrance and exits or the ones closest to public transportation to sport heftier prices than the stalls further in from the periphery. I always try and take a quick walk all the way up and down the market taking note of who has what and what they're charging before jumping into any purchase.
2. Visit Early for Selection, Late for Price
Absolutely have to get your hands on some ramps or morels? You probably want to get to the market early to pick up the rarities before they go. On the other hand, late shopping has its benefits too. As the market day approaches its finish, many farmer's with extra produce will pass off the goods at bargain-basement prices. Just last week I picked up a dozen laid-that-morning eggs from Ronnybrook for 50¢ less than what I pay for organic eggs in the supermarket. Last year I snagged a few flats of overripe heirloom tomato seconds for $1 a pound—perfect for filling my winter pantry with jars of sauce.
3. Bring Your Own Bag
You all own Serious Eats reusable shopping bags, right? Bringing a sturdy, reusable shopping bag to the farmer's market not only makes sense for the environment, it's also nicer to the farmers and easier on your hands (our sturdy handles are way more comfortable than cheap plastic loops). Plus, there's always the off chance that someone will notice the Serious Eats logo and spontaneously cry out, "OMG—you read Serious Eats too? I love that site. Let's get married," and happily ever after will ensue.
Nobody knows their product better than the farmer's that produce them, and farmers' markets give you the opportunity to hear what's what straight from the horse's mouth. Make regular visits, and you may even find yourself getting better bargains or being offered special products for your loyalty.
5. Leave Your Shopping List Open
In fact, unless you really have to, don't go with a shopping list at all—go with a budget instead. Farmers' markets by their very nature are dynamic things that change from week to week both in terms of availability and quality. Be open to shopping around for the best ingredients whether they were part of your original plan or not, and you'll end up with a much better bounty.
6. Do Your Research
Only a thorough on-site evaluation will tell you what's best on any particular day, but it pays to know in advance what to expect. Are we at the height of asparagus season, or is it more likely the farmer's are pushing stalks that are past their prime? Should you be focusing on the sprouts or the squash? You wouldn't want to miss out on the short Greengage season because you're busy filling your bag up with the apples that'll still be around for weeks to come, right?
7. Spread the Love
A lot of farmers' markets these days feature one or two really large farms that seem to sell a virtual supermarket's worth of produce, and often they sell really great stuff, but chances are they don't have the very best of everything. It pays to spend time visiting multiple stalls to pick and choose the best from each one. The farmers won't get offended. I promise.