The term melon describes a large round or oval fruit with skin that ranges from thin to very thick and encloses juicy flesh surrounding a central core of small seeds. Before they are even cut into, most melons have an alluring aroma that hints of the sweet, smooth flesh inside.
The many melon varieties fall into two groups: muskmelons and watermelons (see related tip at right). Muskmelons include netted melons, such as cantaloupe, with fine, raised ridges; they are generally at their peak from midsummer to early fall. The category of muskmelons known as winter melons includes smooth-skinned varieties like honeydew, which are at their best during the cooler autumn months.
Ripe muskmelons have a strong, sweet fragrance and give slightly when pressed at both ends. A fully ripe melon may have tiny cracks at the stem end. Choose melons that are heavy for their size and free of deep blemishes, shriveled peel or soft, moldy areas.
Store ripe melons in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Although it will not obtain the flavor of a vine-ripened one, an unripe melon will sweeten slightly if left in a paper bag at room temperature for a few days. An exception is the honeydew, which will stay only as sweet as it was when harvested.
Cut muskmelons in half and scoop out their seeds with a large spoon. To keep the melon moist, peel and cut off slices only as they are needed. Melons taste sweeter if served at room temperature or only slightly chilled. Remove them from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.