Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: Pawpaws are sweet and custard-like, and they might just be in your neck of the woods.
Shop the Story
Pawpaws have been around a long time. Chilled pawpaws were allegedly George Washington’s favorite dessert, Thomas Jefferson planted pawpaw trees at Monticello, and Lewis and Clark ate pawpaws as they traveled across the United States. The pawpaw is the largest native edible fruit in the U.S., and it is indigenous to about half of the country’s states -- yet it is sometimes called the forgotten fruit. Why haven’t more people heard of them? Pawpaws are only available a few weeks of the year in the late summer or early fall, and they have a short shelf life -- 2 to 3 days on a counter or a week in the fridge. If picked too early, they can be bitter even when the flesh softens, so they should be picked when ripe, but at that point they’re delicate (think of an extremely ripe pear), making them a challenge to transport. Which means your neighborhood grocery store may have easily forgotten them, too, but give it time -- they're in the early stages of commercialization.
Should you decide to take matters into your own hands and grow pawpaws in your yard, you’ll need to plant two varieties in order to get fruit, and even then it would be best to brush up on your hand-pollination skills. Be forewarned: pawpaw flowers emit a controversial fragrance -- some compare it to rotting meat. That aroma is intended to attract their natural pollinators, flies and beetles, but since the aroma can be faint, some growers go so far as to hang roadkill in their pawpaw trees to attract them (we don’t recommend this as a way to charm the neighbors). While you wait for your trees to fruit, you’ll have to get lucky at a farmers market, make friends with a forager, or buy the frozen pulp online.
For their relatively unknown status, pawpaws have a lot of monikers. Both a variety of spellings (paw paw, paw-paw, and papaw), as well as a large number of common names, many of them involving banana (prairie banana, wild banana). Pawpaw is also a common name for papaya, but the two fruits aren’t related. The pawpaw fruit is a large berry that is initially green (3), and often turns yellow or brown with dark spots as it ripens.
Color change isn’t the best indicator of ripeness though -- treat them like peaches and give them a gentle squeeze. Pawpaw’s pale yellow flesh (1) has a custard-like texture, and the flavor is a tropical mix of mango, banana, melon, and pineapple, though it can vary greatly by cultivar (there are almost 30).
Pawpaws are arguably best straight from the tree. Cut them in half, grab a grapefruit spoon -- to help get the flesh away from the large seeds (2) -- and enjoy. They are often used in all manner of desserts, and can easily be substituted in any recipe calling for mashed bananas (like bread or waffles). At the annual Pawpaw Festival in Ohio, pawpaws show up in cocktails, sauces, jam, and savory dips; pawpaws are even used in beer, brandy, and wine -- so get creative. We’ve got a week’s worth of ideas to get you started: