Until pretty recently, it wasn’t always easy getting one’s hands on a fresh fig. Unless you lived in the areas surrounding the west coast’s fig-growing regions, or had a fig tree yourself, enjoying the fruit at its sweetest and most succulent peak often meant seeking out underground measures. While attending college in the Midwest, I once had a roommate who actually got his uncle to send an overnight parcel of fresh figs plucked from the trees he kept out in Oregon.
98 percent of commercially grown figs in the U.S. are from California, mostly in the area just west of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with a smaller concentration in the arid southeastern corner of the state. Since ripe figs are fragile and tend to decline quickly after harvest, transporting them across distances has often been a challenge. But improvements in shipping and packaging have made it easier to get them across the country, even in places where figs were once synonymous with dried fruit.
Regardless of where you are, if you see a perfectly ripe fig, the only appropriate reaction is to pounce on it. Because there truly is nothing like the jammy, honey-sweet flavor of a fig that has been picked at just the right moment.
But how do you know when a fig is fit to eat? Here are some tips for seeking out the best as we head into peak fig season.
1. Varieties to Know
There are dozens of different edible fig species grown throughout the world, but only a handful are commonly cultivated in the U.S.. Here are six that you can find in stores and at farmers’ markets:
The most widely available fig, brown turkeys are distinguished by their large size and dull, reddish-purple color that transitions into a bright green toward the top. They have a pretty mild flavor that’s pleasant when eaten fresh. But it can be intensified and improved a bit through cooking. Try baking them on a pizza with some herbs and good cheese. Get our Fig and Goat Cheese Pizza recipe.
Relatively easy to find, black missions are fantastic for enjoying all on their own. When ripe, the small, inky purple figs are meltingly soft and tender. Their rust-colored flesh has a jammy sweetness to it with earthy, almost mineral undertones. If we had to put them into a recipe, it would only be one that keeps them raw and fresh, like a salad. Get our Fig and Arugula Salad with Honey-Mustard Dressing recipe.
With grassy green skin and rosy, seed-filled flesh, fresh calimyrnas are known for their buttery, almost nutty flavor. They make superb, rich-tasting dried figs, too. It’s worth seeking out dried calimyrnas in recipes that call for dried figs, like this charoset where they’re front and center. Get our Ashkephardic Charoset recipe.
Fresh green kadotas are widely available, but with their pretty meager flavor, they lack the wow factor of their other figgy brethren. Try grilling them in order to help give them a boost. Get our Grilled Fig and Orange Blossom Sundaes recipe.
Adriatics (also known as candy stripe or white figs) are considered by some to be the pinnacle of fig family. They have a mind-blowingly succulent sweetness to them offset by a hint of acidity. You can recognize these green figs by their delicately streaked surface and flesh that’s a vivid shade of red-violet when fully ripe. Although it’s hard to imagine them any way but whole and fresh, their fruit-forward sugariness would definitely go down well in a cocktail. Get our Flying Fig Cocktail recipe.
Tiger (or Panachée) figs come from relatively low yield trees. Best when picked fully ripe, it’s a challenge to get them from farm to market before they start to turn. They also don’t make particularly great dried fruit. For these reasons, farmers hadn’t taken much interest in them, until recently, when tiger figs started to gain attention for their stellar balance of honeyed sweetness and berry-like acidity. Distinguished by their pale yellow skin with dark green stripes and deep purple flesh, you’re unlikely to find fresh ones far from where they’re grown. But overripe tiger figs are often saved and preserved by turning them into jam, which is lovely on a simple crostini with goat cheese. Get our Fig Jam and Goat Cheese Crostini recipe.
2. Figs Have Multiple Seasons
There isn’t exactly one perfect time of the year to eat fresh figs: different fig varieties have different harvest seasons. Additionally, the California fig industry has introduced new growing regions in recent years that have enabled a more or less continuous supply of fruit from May through January. But for the most part, all fig trees are capable of producing two crops each year: a smaller breba crop that traditionally comes around May or June, and a more substantial main crop that falls from August to early October. The main crop also tends to produce better tasting fruit, which is why we think of late summer and early fall as peak fig season. You can pair these figs up with other seasonal fruits like pears, as we do in this pork tenderloin recipe. Get our Easy Roasted Pork Tenderloin recipe.
3. Pick Figs That are Already Ripe
Figs don’t ripen very much once they’re off the vine, which is why you want to avoid firm, underripe figs at all costs—they’re not getting any better. Ripe figs should have a little bit of plump softness to them, with their stems still firmly attached. They shouldn’t be squishy or look dry and wrinkly—this means they’ve gone over the hill. You’ll want to eat ripe figs as soon as possible—they’ll usually start to turn within three days of their peak.
If you do have some hard, immature figs on your hands, they can be improved with cooking. Try our chicken and figs recipe, which calls for sauteeing them in butter (butter can make pretty much anything taste better, of course). Get our Chicken with Goat Cheese and Figs recipe.
4. Keep Them Cool
Figs don’t stay fresh for very long. You’ll only make their short lifespan shorter by keeping them at room temperature. Store the fruits in the fridge, and be careful to cover them well since they can easily get smashed. You can also pop figs in the freezer—they’ll lose their texture and some of their flavor, but you’ll at least have them around for longer. Or you can get crafty and preserve them in a fig jam, which has plenty of uses, like in our fig jam mustard. Get our Fig Mustard recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.