When it comes to fall produce, pumpkins and apples get all the love. But figs are amazing, and much more versatile than you might think. Figs have been around for a while: in myths, in legends, in history, in religion, and on the plate. But they’re still not given the credit they deserve. Here, a guide to figs, with everything you need to know about choosing, storing, and using them (meaning plenty of delicious fig recipes, of course).
Where Do Figs Come From?
Figs first appeared in Asia Minor. Doing the future a favor, the Greeks and Romans carried them through the Mediterranean. In the sixteenth century, Franciscan missionaries brought figs to southern California. From those roots, we pluck the Black Mission fig.
Figs are also mentioned on Sumerian tablets ca. 2500 BCE, and remains of fig trees are found in 5000 BCE Neolithic sites. Garden of Eden? The fruit isn’t specified, but apples aren’t rife in the region. Figs, whose leaves appear in art as post-awakening minimalist attire for Adam and Eve, are likelier choices for forbidden fruit.
Now, 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.
Anna and Sarah Dried Black Mission Figs, 3 pounds for $21.99 on Amazon
To be fair, dried figs are still great too.
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.
Figs are a pleasure you should not forbid yourself. Don’t write them off as common, and don’t limit yourself to dried figs. There’s more to the fresh fruit than you know.
What Are the Different Types of Figs?
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 some to look out for:
Black Mission Figs
With its dark purple skin, the Black Mission fig is a common sight. On the outside, they’re a purple dark enough to pass for black. 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. You can enjoy any fig out of hand, but Black Mission figs are standouts stuffed with goat’s milk cheese or simply sliced and added to a salad (like our Fig and Arugula Salad with Honey-Mustard Dressing recipe). For a cold-weather appetizer, run your cheesy figs under the grill.
Brown Turkey Figs
Similar in shape to Black Missions, Brown Turkey figs are subtler and less brazenly sweet. 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 (use them in salads, slice them over Greek yogurt with maple syrup or honey). But it can be intensified and improved a bit through cooking. Try baking them on a pizza with some herbs and good cheese (like our Fig and Goat Cheese Pizza recipe).
As green as ripe watermelons outside, Calimyrna figs are another familiar sight. These figs, which hail from Turkey, are meaty red on the inside. Calimyrna have a nutty flavor that makes them great for cheese and charcuterie boards. Chop them, toss them with walnuts, and add them to yeast dough for a marvelous breakfast bread. No jam needed: just heat and honey; or brown sugar, cinnamon, and a grill. They make superb, rich-tasting dried figs, too. (Really, it’s worth seeking out dried Calimyrnas in recipes that call for dried figs, like our Ashkephardic Charoset recipe where they’re front and center.)
Adriatic figs (also known as candy stripe or white figs) are periwinkle green. When you cut them, that spring hue makes a startling contrast with the garnet-bright flesh. Almost candy-sweet, Adriatic figs make fabulous fig pastes, and are considered by some to be the pinnacle of fig family. Their fruit-forward sugariness would definitely go down well in a drink too.
If you’re lucky enough to find an O’Rourke (brown and green outside; pale yellow and salmon-pink in), then you’re in for a treat. A “brown sugar fig” (the variety gets its name by tasting like brown sugar), the O’Rourke is meaty and sweeter than Adriatics.
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.
If honey’s your passion, keep your eye out for the Alma. These small golden fruits have a taste that could bewilder bees. This is a young fig, put in the market by Texas A&M.
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, then pair with meat or cheese, or turn them into dessert.
Can You Grow Figs?
Yes! In fact, the best way to get fresh figs is to grow them. While they like mild climates, you can get fruit from a fig in a window-side pot in Brooklyn or a handkerchief garden in Seattle.
Tiger Fig Tree, $34.99 at Target
Grow your own.
Related Reading: How to Grow an Indoor Herb Garden
For those of us who lack the space or time, though, or whose thumbs are more grey than green, the only choice is the market.
When Are Figs in Season?
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.
How Do You Tell If Figs Are Ripe?
Don’t squeeze figs to test for ripeness. The fruit is delicate and easily damaged. The Platonic ideal of a fig is full, plump, and weighty for its size, but a fig that’s a bit on the wrinkled side is just as delicious as one that’s visually perfect. As with any fruit, anything that feels limp, soggy, or moldy should not come home with you.
How Do You Store Figs?
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. But fresh, ripe figs are for enjoying, not for storing.
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.
How Can you Preserve Figs?
If you have figs on the edge of turning, then this infusion will preserve the season in spirited style:
- Quarter your leftover or edge-of-overripe figs, and spread them on a silicone sheet or lightly oiled baking pan.
- Break a cinnamon stick into small pieces and scatter it across the figs.
- Drizzle the figs and cinnamon with honey, and roast at 325 for 10 minutes, or until the figs and glaze are warm.
- Allow to cool.
- Put the roasted figs, honey, and cinnamon into a food-safe container. Pour a bottle of bourbon over them. Cover the container, and mark it with “fig bourbon” and the date.
- How long it will take to infuse depends on how many figs you resisted eating. Start tasting after two days. When the bourbon smells like boozy fig pie and tastes as sweet as you want it, strain it through a fine mesh sieve and then a coffee filter.
Use it to make a fig Old Fashioned: a bar-spoon of honey syrup (1:1 honey and warm water), a dash of Angostura bitters, and two ounces of fig-infused bourbon. Build it in a rocks glass with ice, stir, and serve it with a lemon and orange twist. If you like creamy drinks, then make a dark Peach Blow Fizz variation, swapping figs for strawberries and fig-infused bourbon for gin.
More Fig Recipes
If you’d rather have your figs and eat them, too, then there are plenty of ways to do that. Just remember to save enough to use in the kitchen. When a perfect fig’s in hand, it’s awfully easy to give in to temptation. Restraint will bring fig-sweet rewards to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’ve got great recipes for dried figs too.
This flaky tart from chef Jose Garces poaches dried figs in a mixture of red wine, peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, and cinnamon. The warmly spiced figs are then combined with creamy, sweet blue cheese and salted walnuts in the puff pastry shell, for a sophisticated and stunning dish that can serve as an appetizer or even an unusual dessert. Get our Poached Fig, Walnut, and Blue Cheese Tart recipe.
The elegance of these make-ahead tidbits belies their ease: the reduction is simply port and honey simmered together to a syrupy consistency, up to one week in advance. Up to a few hours before you want to eat, slice fresh figs, stuff them with sharp, salty ricotta salata, and drizzle with the sweet, rich syrup. Pass them as a cocktail party starter or plate them prettily for an elegant sit-down dinner. Get our Ricotta Salata Stuffed Figs with Port Reduction recipe.
Find space for figs in your entrees too. This easy pork recipe takes oregano and thyme, plus figs and pears, and transforms a pork tenderloin into a memorable autumn meal. Get our Easy Roasted Pork Tenderloin recipe.
A simple mixture of spicy Dijon mustard and sweet, crunchy fig jam (which you can make yourself or buy) is a perfect addition to a cheese plate, or slathered on a sandwich (like one made from the leftover pork tenderloin above, for instance). Get our Fig Mustard recipe.
Divina Fig Spread, $9.70 on Amazon
Good store-bought fig jam is a more than acceptable shortcut.
Figs and goat cheese often mingle in appetizers or salads, but they can make it into the main course too. Golden-brown chicken breasts stuffed with creamy, tangy chèvre pair beautifully with fresh figs and a sauce made from port wine and chicken stock. When you can’t find fresh figs, you can use dried and add them to the reduction as it’s cooking so they plump up. Get our Chicken with Goat Cheese and Figs recipe.
This is another fabulous fig recipe that looks like it took a lot more work than in reality. The moist, aromatic cake is made with honey, cloves, cinnamon, and a little strong coffee for even more complexity, then topped with a sticky, sweet, caramelized fig topping kissed with honey and honey liqueur. Get our Spiced Honey Cake with Caramelized Figs recipe.
Barenjager Honey Liqueur, $20.99+ on Drizly
Honey liqueur adds sweet warmth to this cake and is great in other desserts and drinks.
These chunky homemade power bars combine chewy dried figs and crunchy toasted hazelnuts and almonds; they’re further flavored with honey, cocoa, orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel. Far more interesting than anything you’d get from a box. Get our Dried Fig and Nut Bar recipe.
This post was written by Seanan Forbes. It has been updated with contributions from Miki Kawasaki and Jen Wheeler.
Header image courtesy of Arx0nt / Moment / Getty Images