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Pawpaw: Kitchen Basics

Pawpaw1

What would you think of a creamy, custard-like fruit that tastes like a combination of banana, mango, pineapple, melon, and berries?

The pawpaw—which is a native North American tree fruit—is just such a fruit. Sounds tropical, but the pawpaw is a temperate—meaning not tropical—tree that is native to the Mississippi Valley, a swath of the North American continent from Kentucky to Michigan.

In some parts of the world, the name pawpaw refers to papaya. The papaya is a tropical fruit, so let’s be clear, the pawpaw of North America is not the papaya.

The pawpaw looks like a plump mango, is soft and thin skinned. Its green to yellow fruit is about 3 to 6 inches (7.5-15 cm) long, weighs 5 to 16 ounces, and has 10 to 14 black lima-bean shaped seeds in two rows.

The pawpaw with its wonderful combination of tropical flavors is perfect for making pies, cakes, cookies, bread, custard, pudding, and sherbet. The cream-colored flesh of the pawpaw—which is nearly puréed in preparation for cooking–shares the creamy texture of a banana. The ripe pawpaw can be eaten out of hand or chilled and served as a stand-alone dessert.

The pawpaw is a slender, deciduous tree that grows from about 12 to 20 feet (3.6-6 m) tall and has leathery, oval leaves. Pawpaws are soft skinned and can be difficult to transport so they have not come into the same wide cultivation as apples and pears. They are easily found at farm markets in regions where they are grown.

The pawpaw is native to the temperate woodlands of the eastern United States. It is seldom found near the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts. The pawpaw requires a minimum of 400 hours of winter chill and at least 160 frost-free days. In recent years, the pawpaw has been introduced into parts of California and the Pacific Northwest.

Local season. Pawpaws are at their peak and ready for harvest from late summer through mid-autumn, August into October in the northern hemisphere.

Choose.  Select pawpaws that give to a gentle squeeze—similar to a ripe peach, are unblemished, and have a pleasant, fruity aroma. The skin of the papwpaw usually lightens from green to yellow or brown as it ripens and may develop blackish flecks which will not affect its flavor or edibility. Color change does not always indicate if a pawpaw is ripe.

Store. The pawpaw is best eaten fresh out of hand but will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. Not fully ripe pawpaws will keep in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Prepare. The pawpaw should be rinsed, peeled and seeded before eating. Ripe pawpaw flesh can be puréed and frozen for later use.

Serve. The pawpaw is best eaten out of hand but its flesh can be pulped and used in baked dessert recipes. Pawpaws pulp is a main ingredient in baked goods including pies, cakes, breads, and cookies and in puddings, custards, and sherbets.

The pawpaw can be substituted for bananas in most recipes that call for bananas.

Flavor partners. Pawpaws have a flavor affinity for banana, coconut, lemon, lime, melon, nectarine, orange, passion fruit, pineapple.

Nutrition. Pawpaws are high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese.

Pawpaw facts and trivia. The pawpaw was first noted by early explorers of the North American continent who found native peoples cultivating it. Chilled pawpaws were a favorite dessert of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The pawpaw is sometimes called the prairie banana, Indiana banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Ozark banana, and American custard apple. The pawpaw is the state fruit of Ohio. At Lake Snowden near Albany, Ohio an annual paw paw fesitval is held each September.

The botanical name of the pawpaw is Asimina triloba. (The botanical name of the papaya is Carica papaya.)

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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  1. Great information as this is my first harvest from my pawpaw trees. I had 6 on the one tree. It bloomed for me for the first time, two years ago and I was totally THRILLED when I found them growing on this tree!
    Your descriptions here helped me in my understanding of the pawpaw which originally were shared by a dear friend who dug the baby trees out of his woods and brought them too me to try in our woods and gardens!
    I hope to use your site for other information and will share with my gardening friends!
    Thanks again for a great site!
    BJ

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