Watermelons appear in grocery stores and in giant cardboard boxes outside markets at about the same time of the year that people start wearing shorts, but range in flavor from lousy to barely okay until around July 4th. The best way to eat watermelon is to cut it into cubes and eat the entire thing in one sitting, but that’s not really much of a recipe and I have column inches to fill here. The second-best way isn’t a watermelon gazpacho, or a watermelon-feta salad, or even simple salted watermelon, delicious as all of those preparations are. No, the second-best way to eat watermelon, especially during the sweat-soaked summer months, is to freeze it. What could be better than eating watermelon in the summer? How about eating extremely cold watermelon in the summer?
Watermelon is technically a type of berry called a pepo. The word berry, in general, refers to any fruit that emerges from a single flower, and includes a wide variety of edible items we refer to sometimes as fruits and sometimes as vegetables. The tomato is a berry, as is the avocado, the zucchini, and the persimmon. What classifies a particular berry as a pepo is basically that it has a very hard rind — restricting the term, mostly, to melons and gourds.
The watermelon is a very old fruit, originating somewhere in southern Africa, and there are hundreds, probably thousands, of different varieties. It is very frustrating that in most of the U.S., watermelons are advertised simply as “watermelons,” and not by their specific variety, because the variety can tell you a lot about color, texture, ripeness, flavor, and sugar content. Some watermelons are sweeter, some more watery, some stronger or lighter in flavor. Some have seeds and some do not. Some are yellow or orange or white on the inside. Some are spherical or ovoid or green or black or speckled or striped or mottled on the outside. Some ripen early, in late June, and some aren’t at their peak until August.
Because we have so little information about our watermelons, it can be tricky to pick one out. There are lots of tricks; my dad always liked to sniff the part of the melon where the stem was attached. I never quite figured out what he was looking for. Some people slap the melon to test for its acoustics. This is a very fun way to test for ripe fruit, and I would never discourage someone from slapping a melon. Slap it! Haha. But I rely on a simpler method: Heft many melons in your hands, and pick the one that feels heaviest for its size. More weight equals more sugar, which is what we want.
In general, I prefer the smaller, spherical melons over the giant ovoid ones. In New York, many small, spherical watermelons are of the Sugar Baby variety, which has an extremely high sugar content and a nice, crisp, rarely mealy flesh. But I highly encourage you to grab any weird melons you see; the Moon and Stars watermelon, for example, which has a nearly black rind speckled with some pale yellow spots and one or two large yellow patches, is almost always excellent. I’ll also never turn down a melon of unexpected color, like the Yellow Baby or Saskatchewan, though they can be tough to find.
Cutting a melon isn’t any different from cutting anything else. With a chef’s knife (there’s no need for a serrated knife here), slice the melon in half, then in half again. Cut into triangle-shaped wedges, then trim off the rind and discard (or pickle, if you like). Chop into cubes, and try not to eat them all, because there’s more to be done with this melon. Maybe you should have an eating melon alongside when preparing these frozen melon treats.
If you’ve got a seedless watermelon, toss the cubes into a blender or food processor and blend thoroughly. If there are black seeds, you’ll have to take them out first; this is a pain, though at least you’ll have a bunch of watermelon to console you. Then pour the blended watermelon into a fine strainer. You can use a colander lined with cheesecloth, but I prefer a simple fine mesh strainer like this one. You’ll have to use your palm to smush the melon pulp against the strainer to get all the juice out, but it’s worth it.
Once you’ve got your watermelon juice, you’re prepared to do all kinds of fun cold stuff with it. There are ways to make popsicles without dedicated popsicle molds; you can simply freeze your popsicle in a paper cup and stick a popsicle stick in there. But popsicle molds cost like twelve dollars and will do a better job. The Sweethome recommends this silicone one, which seems nice; I have these plastic ones, some of which have cracked over the years, so maybe silicone is the way to go.
The secret to a good popsicle is much like the secret to a good soup: You need much more seasoning than you think you do. You may think, damn, thanks to Dan’s very good advice for picking out a watermelon I have an extremely sweet watermelon here, so I probably don’t need much sugar for these pops. You’d be wrong. Pops always need more sugar than you’d think, and usually some salt as well.
As for flavoring, do not include whole leaves of herbs in a popsicle. Jesus Christ. Have you ever enjoyed gnawing on a half-exposed floppy leaf of basil in a popsicle? Nobody has. The best way to get herb flavor into your pop is with a flavored simple syrup. In a saucepan on the stove, combine a cup of white sugar, half a cup of water, and a few big healthy sprigs of either basil or mint, and stir over medium heat until the sugar is all dissolved. Let it cool down to room temperature with the leaves still sitting in there, then remove and discard the leaves.
Shopping list: Watermelon, limes, basil simple syrup, salt
Combine watermelon juice with simple syrup until it tastes just a touch too sweet. This depends on the sweetness of your melon but one tablespoon of simple syrup to one cup of juice is a good place to start. Add a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt, stir to combine, pour into molds and stick in the freezer overnight.
A very underrated and delicious texture is that of very small ice shards just on the verge of melting. In southeastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, this is called “water ice,” a perfect name because, ideally, a good water ice should be hovering delicately on the thin line between liquid and solid. In New York and elsewhere, there is a garbage version known as “Italian ice,” which is like “dairy-free ice cream” or “high-fructose corn syrup sorbet.” It is scooped into a paper cup and retains the shape of the scoop, which means, according to second grade science, that it is a solid, and thus solidly bullshit. Just get an ice cream if that’s what you want.
Anyway it is pretty easy to make a home version of water ice, and watermelon juice, being abundant and less viscous than many other fruit juices, is ideal. The whole game is to sneakily tiptoe down to the freezing point of your juice, then serve right as the concoction isn’t sure whether it’s frozen or liquid. One technique for this is to freeze the juice fully, then let it thaw slightly, then break up the ice crystals before serving. The best way to move your frozen juice to the fridge, which will very very slowly defrost it, for an hour or two, then drag a good strong fork through it. Another way is to carefully watch the mixture as it freezes, checking every hour and dragging, with a fork, the ice crystals that form along the edge of the container into the still-liquid middle.
Either method will create a texture very close to southeast Pennsylvania water ice, though if you want to impress people who aren’t impressed by your knowledge of Philly cuisine you can call it a granita. “Granita” is Italian for “water ice.”
But my preferred method is easier, and more fun. Just use booze!
Alcohol’s freezing point is much, much lower than water’s, so you can sneakily mess with the freezing point of your water ice/granita/slush by adding a little bit of alcohol to the mixture. That way you can skip the whole transferring to the fridge business, because your water ice will never quite freeze. Don’t add too much alcohol to the mix, or you’ll never get any ice crystals at all; remember, you can always add more after, so keep the ratio to about one part liquor to 10 parts non-liquor. Basically any cocktail can be turned into a watermelon water ice; watermelon has an affinity for gin, vodka, tequila, and even, in certain applications, according to some websites, bourbon. My favorite is gin.
Watermelon GIN-ger Water Ice
Shopping list: Watermelon, fresh ginger, limes, gin, white sugar, fresh mint
First, make a ginger simple syrup. In a saucepan, simmer two cups of water, one cup of white sugar, and two thumb-size knobs of ginger (sliced thinly into rounds) for about 20 minutes. Strain out ginger and any weird particles.
In a large glass casserole, mix five cups watermelon juice, a quarter cup of gin, a quarter cup of ginger syrup, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lime. Taste: it should taste like a good but too-sweet cocktail. Place in freezer for at least three hours, overnight if you want. Before serving, drag a fork through the granita to break it up into small bits of ice. Chop mint thinly; a chiffonade would be nice and annoying. Serve in bowls or cups and top with mint.
These are just a few to get you started. Watermelon is a fairly neutral fruit, mostly just watery, sugary, and slightly vegetal, so it goes with pretty much any flavor. It takes well to salt, to spice, and to acid. I’ve had good luck with frozen treats made from watermelon juice mixed with everything from sherry vinegar to tomato puree to Pimm’s to cayenne. In fact due to its high water content there’s very little you can’t do with it; some people like to freeze the juice in an ice cube tray to flavor drinks. Some people like to freeze the actual cubes of raw cut melon and blend them in high-powered blenders (which I cannot afford) to make an icy smoothie. It’s hard to mess up when the fruit — sorry, pepo — wants so badly for you to freeze it.
Photo by Jennifer Chait