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A can’t-miss technique for bringing flavor to pallid, seedless watermelons

Watermelon drizzled with herb-tahini dressing, topped with chiles and pistachios, on a white plate.
To make this watermelon salad drizzled with herb-tahini dressing and topped with sliced chiles and pistachios, you first sprinkle the watermelon with salt and sugar.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Jennifer Sacks)

I’ve long held a controversial opinion that goes against science, and now is the season to come clean about it: Watermelons aren’t as good as they used to be.

Sure, every summer you might find one or two that are supremely juicy and sweet and crisp. But more often than not, the watermelons I get my hands on — whether from an everyday grocery store or at the farmers market — are pallid and mealy.

In contrast, the watermelons I grew up with in the South were so juicy you had to go outside to cut them open, then rinse the runoff from the table and patio. Shaped like an oblong pill too large for the Jolly Green Giant to swallow, they were filled with black seeds. During two-a-day high school football practice in the height of summer — a.k.a. hell on earth in the South — our coach would bring us watermelons as a substitute for water during our breaks. With a sprinkle of salt on a wedge to balance the intense sweetness, that watermelon was better than any Gatorade drink could strive to be.

The watermelons I’ve encountered since then don’t live up to the ones I had down South. The colder climates of New York and the drier California landscape have an effect on that, but I think the real culprit was when watermelons lost their seeds. Most watermelons sold in grocery stores now are “seedless” — technically they do have seeds, they’re just really small and not crunchy so you don’t mind eating them. But in the shift from seeded to seedless, I feel like most watermelons lost their sweetness and flavor.

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Scientists insist that seedless watermelons are no less tasty than seeded varieties. It’s all nostalgia, they say. Maybe, but my partner, an avid watermelon seeker, spends all summer buying a watermelon at least every other day. The consistent factor in the good ones he finds is that they have traditional large seeds. Even other chefs and food industry people I chat with at farmers markets and at dinners sometimes will admit to the low quality of watermelons these days, especially if I share my unpopular opinion on them first.

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All this to say, sometimes watermelons need a little help. And if you can’t find a giant pillow-shaped seeded watermelon, I still want you to enjoy the fruit because, dadgummit, there’s something truly wonderful about that sweet, cold, crunchy melon flesh when you find the perfect specimen. So, instead of eschewing watermelon for the rest of my life, I’ve turned to preseasoning my melons to give any subpar melon a boost.

A trio of spiced salts and sugars pack flavor onto fresh cubes of summer’s best melons.

This technique isn’t new, of course. Adding salt and sugar, often laden with spices, to melons is how many of us eat them. But I’m talking about using salt and sugar not just as a flavoring agent but also to drive off excess moisture in watermelon so you can concentrate its flavor to the highest extent, similar to how you would for sliced cucumbers. I like to cube watermelon, topple it into a colander that I’ve set in my sink, then sprinkle it liberally with a big pinch of salt and the same of sugar. I toss the melon to ensure it’s evenly coated, then let it stand for 20 or 30 minutes. Often, I’ll place that colander in a bowl, then set it in the fridge so the melon stays ice-cold.

Once it’s done, there’s often at least ½ cup to 1 cup of liquid that’s drained off the melon. The melon itself is intensely flavorful — the perfect thing to set out in a bowl for snacking on a hot afternoon. But this summer, I’m going a step forward and making a salad with my macerated watermelon. Well, salad may be a stretch since this is literally just watermelon coated in a spicy dressing and topped with other aromatics that go well with it.

I love watermelon salads, but even the best kalamata-olive-and-tomato-paired versions can get stale at times. Instead of a vinegar-soaked salad, I’m going with a tahini dressing. Its fatty richness provides the perfect contrast to the lean, sweet, crisp melon. I make a traditional tahini sauce spiked with a few slices of jalapeño and lots of lemon juice and garlic, and perfumed with toasted coriander and cumin seeds. The luscious dressing is drizzled over the watermelon, then topped with fresh mint leaves (which are also in the dressing), chopped pistachios for a nutty crunch and even more jalapeño slices. But instead of using them raw, I soak the chile slices in that drained-off, salty-sweet watermelon liquor. It’s a great use of something you’d normally discard. The salt and sugar help tame the raw harshness of the jalapeño slices so they’re pleasant — not a shock — on top of the salad.

This dish is my new favorite way to make the most of the common seedless watermelons from grocery stores. I’ll be making it all summer long every time I come upon a less-than-stellar specimen, seasoning it with salt and sugar and then coating it in this rich, spicy and spiced dressing. It’s my way of turning lemons into lemonade, or more appropriately, middling melons into a breezy summertime salad worthy of the memory of those watermelons from days gone by.

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