Growing Better Flavor: How to Improve Brix for a Tastier Harvest
If you tend a garden or farm field and grow your own food, you may have noticed there’s a distinct difference in flavor between what you harvest out of your own patch and what you buy in the grocery store. You might ascribe this taste difference to a placebo effect (“It just feels better to know I grew this carrot!”), or to the freshness factor (“Obviously this pepper tastes better because it didn’t sit in a truck for three days to get to me!”), but did you know that with a focused approach to plant genetics and soil health you can actually have a measurable effect on the flavor of the produce you grow? You may be in control of the tastiness of your tomatoes more than you realize.
How to Measure Flavor: An Explanation of Brix
Brix (symbol °Bx) is a measure of sugars, vitamins, minerals, proteins and other solid content in plant juice. Brix is determined by extracting the juices of a fruit or plant and using light refraction to determine the density of the sugars and other dissolved solid content. It is commonly used to measure sugar levels in the wine and fruit juice industries, but is also a useful tool for measurements in whole fruits and vegetables.
A tool called a refractometer is used to measure degrees Brix. Juice from a plant's leaf or fruit is extracted using a garlic press or other device. The juice is then measured by the refractometer to determine the plant's Brix.
This measurement's importance lies in the link between Brix levels and nutrient content. Since the inception of Brix as a measurement in the 19th century, readings from these measurements have been found to relate directly to nutrient content in plants and fruits. The higher the Brix level (sugars, vitamins, minerals, proteins and other solids), the higher the nutritional value of the fruit or vegetable - and, because of the increased presence of simple and complex sugars, the better the flavor!
Brix and Plant Genetics
Perhaps you’ve noticed while browsing your seed catalog that seed flavor is often used as a selling point for varieties. “One of the best-tasting heirlooms,” “Prized for sweet flavor,” “Maintains good flavor in storage,” etcetera. Although you may think these claims are exaggerated for marketing purposes, they are often based on actual data of Brix levels, and relate directly to a plant’s measureable flavor profile.
According to a 2013 fact sheet published by Ohio State University Extension, “All things being equal, varieties of the same crop tend to differ in their baseline Brix level. That is, varieties have a natural inclination toward lower or higher levels of soluble solids within the portion that is marketed. Therefore, variety selection is one of the most important and direct methods of shaping Brix and crop quality.”
More and more, organic breeders are selecting and crossing varieties based on their flavor profiles and Brix levels. Why is this trend specific to organics? The organic market sells to consumers who value flavor. If these consumers aren’t already buying their own seed to grow organic food at home, then they are usually purchasing produce directly from farms through a market or CSA, and they do so because they want to taste the difference.
So, when you’re trying to select your vegetable varieties and want to achieve superior-tasting produce, look for the descriptions that boast good flavor. You can be confident that their taste has been precisely determined, and that those flavor genetics will translate into a delicious harvest for you.
Brix and Soil Health
Wine producers have known for generations that the best wines are produced from high-Brix grapes grown in particular soils. So, we must ask ourselves: what is it about those soils that allows them to produce a high Brix content in the grapes? The vitamins that are present in whole foods with high Brix levels are directly related to the minerals that a plant receives from its growing medium. Each vitamin is keyed by a specific mineral, so if your growing medium is rich in the minerals the plant needs to thrive, you’ll be well on your way to nutritious, delicious produce.
However, it is important to keep in mind that even if a soil is rich in particular nutrients, those nutrients may not be readily available for a plant to absorb without the right biological life in the soil. For example, throwing a generic fertilizer on your growing space with the hope that it will provide a shot of nutrients to your plants may not have the desired affect if the plant can’t take up the nutrients in the fertilizer. Mycorrhizae in healthy, living soils directly affect a plant’s ability to uptake important minerals like Iron and other elements (i.e. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, etc.). Without these ingredients, not only will the plant’s health likely suffer, but its Brix levels will be unable to reach their full potential, resulting in a less flavorful final product.
To maximize your plants’ potential for delicious, high Brix juices, maintain your soil’s health first. You can read about ways to increase your soil organic matter and improve your fertility through careful soil amendments and cultural practices on our blog.
High Mowing’s High-Scoring Brix Varieties
Stores well ∙ ½ - 1 lb ∙ 110 days to maturity
Adorable, serving size mini butternut with dark tan skin and great sweet flavor. Simply cut in half and bake! Delectable squash is smaller than Ponca with more uniform butternut shape. Green unripe fruits; early planting is recommended for tan color. Field resistance to powdery mildew. Developed by the Vegetable Breeding Institute at Cornell University.
Long day ∙ Stores well ∙ 3” bulbs ∙ 108 days to maturity
Very productive storage variety with medium-sized round bulbs. Our first variety with strong resistance to downy mildew! Yield and excellent storage qualities similar to Copra. Dark brown skins and bulbs that remain hard and sound until spring. Disease resistances: Downy Mildew.
Long storing ∙ High Brix ∙ 8" Nantes-type
Hands-down winner in our taste tests after months of storage! Great sweet flavor, juicy crunch, high quality and incredibly long storage life made this variety a standout in our trials for two years running. Grown on increasingly big acreage in Europe, we are delighted to share this new Swiss-bred variety with growers in North America. Slightly tapered roots have good uniformity, bright orange color and strong, healthy tops that display strong tolerance of alternaria. Widely adapted and versatile for bunching or storage; rated 20-30% higher in sugars than Bolero over 9 months in storage and maintained great crunch. From our friends at Swiss biodynamic seed company Sativa Seeds.
Stores well ∙ 2-3” bulbs ∙ 100 days to maturity
Tear-drop shaped bulb with pale pink flesh and rosy pink-brown skin that is easy to peel. Conservor has great flavor and excellent storage life, offering a higher percentage of large, single bulbs. Greater yield potential than Ambition with less blocky shape; more like traditional French shallots.
Cantaloupe ∙ 1-2 lb ∙ 71 days to maturity
Exceptionally early melon with consistently high quality fruit. We were instantly lovestruck with this small, early cantaloupe! Every melon was filled with firm, wonderfully sweet flesh - unusual in such an early melon. A standout in our taste tests 2 years in a row, with strong disease resistance and an attractive, lightly netted rind. Bred by Dr. Brent Loy at UNH. Disease resistances: Fusarium Wilt (2), Powdery Mildew (1&2).