In parts of Europe, such as Greece, figs are so plentiful that there are times of the year where it is nearly impossible to sell them. Some areas have the opportunity to enjoy two harvest seasons during the warmer months. If you are lucky enough to be growing some of your own figs, you need to frequently visit your own trees and check for fruits that are ready for harvest.
Figs are a culinary delicacy with a unique taste and texture. Figs are lusciously sweet, believed to be one of sweetest fruits, and feature a complex texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. In addition, since fresh figs are so delicate and perishable, some of their mystique comes from their relative rarity. Because of this, the majority of figs are dried, either by exposure to sunlight or through an artificial process. However, in this article the focus will be on fresh figs.
Figs grow on the Ficus tree (Ficus carica), a member of the Mulberry family. They are unique in that they have an opening, called the "ostiole" or "eye," which is not connected to the tree, but which helps the fruit's development, aiding it in communication with the environment. Botanically speaking, a fig is not a fruit, but simply a receptacle to hold the seeds, or "fruits" inside. The seeds can't be pollinated because the seeds are inside the fruit, the tree does not blossom.
Figs range in color, shape and subtly in texture depending upon the variety, of which there are more than 150.
Popular varieties include:
- Black Mission: blackish-purple skin and pink colored flesh
- Kadota: green skin and purplish flesh
- Calimyrna: greenish-yellow skin and amber flesh
- Brown Turkey: purple skin and red flesh
- Adriatic: the variety most often used to make fig bars, which has a light green skin and pink-tan fles
Figs: Great Nutrition Packed into a Tiny Package
- Fiber: Few foods are as rich in dietary fiber as figs. An 8 oz. serving meets approximately 1/3 of the recommended daily requirement.
- Trace minerals: Fresh figs are particularly rich in the trace mineral manganese, offering .29 milligrams, or 14.5 percent of the daily requirement per 8 oz. serving, and the major mineral potassium and 79 milligrams of calcium.
- Vitamins: An 8 oz. portion of fresh figs also provides .26mg of vitamin B6 and 10.7 micrograms of vitamin K; meeting approximately 13 percent of the recommended daily value for each. Fresh figs also are a source of vitamin E, providing 2.02mg, or 10 percent of the daily recommended requirement for the same serving.
Fig Leaves are Edible Too!
Although you are not likely to find fig leaves in a US grocery store, but the leaves are edible too. In some cultures, fig leaves are a common part of the menu, and for good reason. The leaves of the fig have repeatedly been shown to have antidiabetic properties and can actually reduce the amount of insulin needed by persons with diabetes who require insulin injections. In one study, a liquid extract made from fig leaves was simply added to the breakfast of insulin-dependent diabetic subjects in order to produce this insulin-lowering effect. And remember from your history classes what a critical role fig leaves played during the Dark Ages when artistic censors ran about protecting the pubic by strategically placing fig leaves of the statues of scandalously nude gods and goddesses.
Selecting and Harvesting Figs
- Figs are delicate and don't travel well, so having your own trees is a wonderful. Do not harvest figs before they have ripened, as they will not further ripen well off the tree.
- Since fresh figs are one of the most perishable fruits, they should be purchased or harvested only a day or two in advance of when you are planning on eating them.
- For the most antioxidants, choose only fully ripened figs. Research suggests that as fruits fully ripen, almost to the point of spoilage, their antioxidant levels actually increase.
- Look for figs that are heavy for their size; have a rich, deep color and are plump and tender soft, but not mushy. They should have firm stems and be free of bruises. Oozing a big of sugary syrup is almost a sure sign of ripeness.
- Smelling figs can also give you clues into their freshness and taste, but . They should have a mildly sweet fragrance and should not smell sour, which is an indication that they may be spoiled.
Ripe figs should be kept in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for about two days. Since they have a delicate nature and can easily bruise, you should store them either arranged on a paper towel-lined plate or shallow container. They should be covered or wrapped in order to ensure that they do not dry out, get crushed or pick up odors from neighboring foods. If you have purchased slightly under-ripe figs, you should keep them on a plate, at room temperature, away from direct sunlight.
Before eating of cooking figs, wash them under cool water and then gently remove the stem and wipe dry. Eat as is or use in one of our recommended recipes below.
Quick Serving Suggestions:
- When preparing oatmeal or any other whole grain breakfast porridge, add fresh figs.
- Poach figs in juice or red wine and serve with yogurt or frozen desserts.
- Add quartered figs to a salad of fennel, arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese.
- Fresh figs stuffed with chevre and chopped almonds can be served as hors d'oeuvres or desserts.
- Slice figs and pears, place a dab of chevre on top, add Maracona almonds and drizzle with local honey
- Peel figs and serve with prosciutto
- More ways for how to prepare figs can be found here.
Other Uses for Figs:
Figs contain a chemical called ficin, a proteolytic enzyme capable of breaking down proteins with an action similar to that of papain, found in papayas, or bromelain, found in pineapples. Ficin is effecting in temperatures ranging from 140 degrees to 160 degrees F, the temperature range for simmering stews. If fresh figs are added to the stew, they will help tenderize the meat and impart excellent flavor. Canned figs will not work because they are heated to very high temperatures during the sterilization process.
Figs are mentioned in the Bible and other ancient writings. They are probably the world's oldest fruit and are believed to have originated in Asia Minor and first cultivated in Egypt where they then spread to ancient Crete and around the 9th century BC to Greece where they became a staple foodstuff. Figs were held in such high esteem, the Greeks created laws forbidding the export of the best quality figs. In ancient Rome they were revered as a sacred fruit. At least 29 varieties of figs were known by then.
Figs were later introduced to other regions of the Mediterranean by ancient conquerors and then brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spaniards in 1520. Today, California remains one of the largest producers of figs in addition to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Selecting Dried Figs
If fresh figs are not in season and you would like to add some to your oatmeal or cereal, dried figs make a suitable alternative. If you are purchasing produce raised for commercial purposes it is advisable to select fresh figs over dried or always reach for the organic figs. Dried figs may be treated with sulfur dioxide gas during processing and sulfites to extend their shelf life, help prevent oxidation and the bleaching of colors. Sulfites used as a preservative cause in adverse reactions in approximately one out of 100 people and it is of particular concern for those who suffer from asthma.