Fun game for your next picnic: Ask everyone to visualize what type of plant papayas grow on. Having trouble? Picture coconuts growing on a coconut palm tree -- now substitute papayas in for the coconuts, and you’ve got a good idea of what the papaya plant looks like. That’s right: It’s a plant, not a tree. Although the plants have a central trunk, grow up to 30 feet high, and for all intents and purposes look exactly like trees, technically, these are large herbaceous plants.
The fruit is generally harvested when still green (and can be used in its unripe state), but if you're hoping to enjoy your papaya when it's ripe, look for specimens that have some yellow on the skin (3, below). Papayas will continue to ripen at room temperature (and you can put them in a paper bag to speed up the process), but if they're completely green, it’s unlikely that they will fully ripen. They’re ripe when they’re slightly soft (and for most types, when the skin is mostly or all yellow), at which point they can be refrigerated for up to a week. The ripe flesh (2 -- but ours isn't as ripe as it could be) comes in all the colors of a sunset: from golden yellow to fiery orange to salmon-red.
In the U.S., papayas are mainly grown in Hawaii, where their peak season is early summer and fall, but they can be found in grocery stores almost year round. If you're looking for a green papaya, check Asian markets.
If you’re willing to go to extremes for a perfect-tasting fruit, follow the technique Elizabeth Schneider learned from a Brazilian cooking teacher: “She scored the fruit lengthwise in quarters, cutting delicately through the skin, but not into the flesh, then turned the fruit onto its narrow stem end, set it in a glass so it wouldn’t tip, and instructed me to leave it for a day. It was certainly the sweetest papaya I’ve ever had in this country.”
More: Papayas are sometimes called pawpaws, butpawpawsare an unrelated fruit of their own.
Whether you're eating them ripe or green, or nibbling on the edible seeds (1, above), here are nine ways to start working more papayas into your repertoire: