When temperatures creep into the triple digits and rain is scarce, crops take a toll. Hot, dry weather has been baking farmland in America’s breadbasket since June, decimating crop yields and sending corn prices through the roof. But there’s an upside too: for some fruits and veggies, the drought has led to intensified flavors — sweeter melons, more pungent onions, hotter chilies.
Farmers say they’re growing some of the most flavorful produce in years. Part of the reason is the lack of rain: the more water content in produce like cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, peaches and grapes, the plumper and juicier they are. But the water also dilutes their flavor. Smaller, less juicy fruits and veggies this season are packing a more concentrated tastiness. “Most plants that have high moisture content will now have sharper flavors, like peppers and tomatoes,” says Irwin Goldman, a horticulture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where farmers have been feeling the heat. “Whenever there is a drought, flavor compounds can become more dominant and foods can have more pungency.”
A hot drought can also affect the amount of flavor-modifying compounds that certain fruits and vegetables produce. Chili peppers, for instance, produce higher levels of alkaloids, particularly the alkaloid capsaicin, which binds to heat receptors on the tongue and causes that familiar hot, spicy sensation. Other veggies whose flavors intensify in hot weather: beets, onions and garlic.
“It’s something restaurant chefs really have to take into account,” notes Goldman. Not just chefs and foodies, but average consumers too. Now’s the time to take advantage of the kinds of penetrating flavors you might not be accustomed to. “My sense is that people are often used to more bland tastes,” says Goldman. “When they they taste something that’s more strongly flavored, it can be a good surprise. It brings out a taste that’s been somewhat lost.”
Colorado fruits are having quite a moment this summer, for example. Michael Bartolo, senior research scientist and crop specialist at Colorado State University, says the state’s Rocky Ford growing region is giving up a small, but particularly sweet crop of cantaloupes and melons. “When melons are under stress, there can be an increase in sugars and an accumulation of sucrose,” says Bartolo. “Our melons and watermelons are very sweet, but it comes at the price of smaller crop yields and smaller fruit sizes overall. These fruits are just trying to survive.”
The trade-off can be worth it for other fruits as well. Theresa High, owner and manager of High Country Orchards in Palisade, Colo., says her produce is doing “just peachy.” High’s family orchard grows peaches, wine grapes and sweet cherries, and sells them to individuals and retailers across the U.S. including Whole Foods. High’s fruits, grown at a relatively high elevation, already get their fair share of sunlight, but this summer’s heat waves boosted her crops’ sun exposure and their sweetness too. “The heat causes higher rates of photosynthesis in the peaches which means the sugar levels increase in the fruit,” says High. “Due to the heat, our peaches not only ripened 10 days to two weeks early, but they are extra sweet.”
Like all of us, peaches need their beauty sleep to look their finest; the fruit’s so-called “sizing up” happens at night. That’s why the current crop is full of little guys: peaches grow only when nighttime temperatures fall below 65 degrees. “We’ve had a lot of really warm summer nights where temperatures have not gone below 70,” says High. “That’s why you may see some peaches are not as large as previous crops.”
A supersweet peach or watermelon slice should convince you that bigger isn’t always better. Some growers agree, noting that the timing of the drought ended up working for their benefit. “If it had started any later, we would be in trouble,” says High, “but the heat in the early part of the season has made the fruit special.”
“If there’s a bright side to the world’s weather conditions, this is it. Everyone is after the perfect peach and I think they found it this year. It is certainly going to help our industry for years to come,” she says.