Right now, at this very moment, pawpaws are ripening on millions of trees all over the eastern United States. Very few of those trees, however, grow in orchards or as ornamentals for landscaping. Pawpaws are tricky like that. They can be tamed, but only by the patient.
Interest in foraging and native fruits, plus unusual ingredients and unfamiliar flavors, has created a minor pawpaw renaissance in the food and horticulture communities. Andrew Moore’s Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award this year, and forward-thinking chefs are creating exciting ways to feature pawpaws on their menus. They taste unreal, bright and sunny with a creamy, succulent flesh.
So why did pawpaws fade from our national consciousness? This is what Moore’s book answers in detail, but the gist is that they don’t travel well, so you’ll never see one at the grocery store. In most cases, you must go to the pawpaws. Pawpaw season is nigh, and if you want to hop on the weird fruit train, now is the time, my friend.
Immature pawpaws growing on the tree.
Finding pawpaws is half the fun! How many times in our lives do we get to embark on an Indian Jones-esque quest? The search for pawpaws, whether you are buying them or foraging for them, is where the magic starts. (Warning: It is not always for the faint of heart.)
If you live in a woodsy area east of the Mississippi, south of Canada, and north of Florida, and you are not at a high elevation (we’re talking USDA hardiness zones 5-8), then you have a decent shot at finding wild pawpaws growing in your area. I get mine from trees that grow along mountain biking trails within walking distance of my house. Pawpaw trees love to grow on shady slopes, close to creek beds, and near rivers. Be ready to scramble around in underbrush, and keep your eyes peeled for poison ivy!
I love looking for pawpaws. It gets me outside, exploring nature. Even when I come home empty-handed (some wild stands of pawpaw trees don’t produce fruit every single year), I know I at least went out on a restorative woods walk. The gamble is what makes stumbling on a pawpaw windfall truly gratifying.
But perhaps you are in an urban area and you don’t have time to traipse through the forest. Ask around at your farmers’ market—often farmers have pawpaws growing wild on their property, and the ones who love pawpaws will go rustle up a few dozen to sell at their stalls in September going into early October. When in doubt, put a post on social media asking “Where can I find pawpaws around here?” Really, it works.
Savor the flesh, leave the skin and seeds behind.
Let’s say you are in the woods, and you find a ripe pawpaw. Truly ripe pawpaws fall from the tree, but with good timing you can get to the tree just in time (hint: shake a tree and the ripe pawpaws will fall; scramble around and gather those). You’ll know a pawpaw is ripe because it won’t be firm, but it won’t be squishy, either; if you press the skin with your thumb, it’ll give the way a just-ripe banana gives. Now, tear into the thing, slurp the flesh from the inside, and spit out the seeds. Don’t you feel like a troglodyte? Isn’t casting aside the mantle of civility for a moment immensely satisfying?
You might also want to take some pawpaws home, chill them in the fridge (this will extend their shelf life a few days), cut them in half, and eat them with a spoon. You’ll still need to spit out the seeds, which are coated with a fleshy membrane that some pawpaw loves say is the best part.
Baked pawpaw pudding tastes like pumpkin pie, only dreamier.
Pawpaws don’t do so well when exposed to heat; it curbs their volatile flavor compounds and lessens the bright tropical notes that make them so appealing. Thus, freezing the pulp of the fruit is really the most versatile way to preserve them so you can enjoy pawpaws past their fleeting season.
You can freeze entire pawpaws, but this takes up a lot of freezer space. I like to scoop the flesh from the skin (the skin is disagreeable to both the palate and the digestive system) and force the pulp though a strainer to extract the seeds (which are pretty, but also not edible). Then I freeze the pulp in quart freezer bags.
Pawpaw pulp makes wonderful smoothies and lassis. If you are a baker, try subbing pawpaw in your favorite banana bread recipe. Remember what I said about pawpaws not liking exposure to heat? Adding lots of sugar and flour seems to alleviate this, so pawpaws do well in many baking applications. There are recipes that call for boiling or simmering pawpaws, but I avoid those. If you have only a small amount of pawpaws, go the easy route and enjoy them fresh or pureed in various drinks. Pawpaw ice cream is wonderful, too—pawpaw pairs with dairy and custards exquisitely.
If you live in pawpaw country, a craft brewery might be your introduction to pawpaws. Wheat beers, saisons, and pale ales are particularly well-suited to the yeasty top notes and banana-mango-citrus nuance of pawpaws. Getting enough frozen pawpaw pulp to brew large quantities of beer is challenging—there’s not currently not vast backstocks of commercially processed pawpaw pulp around—so usually pawpaw beers are seasonals available on tap, or bottled and sold at a premium.
This pawpaw is not just overripe—it’s rotten. Maybe it will propagate future pawpaw trees.
What if you live on the west coast? Pawpaw trees don’t grow in the wild there. Sorry. Plant nerds who love a good challenge cultivate them, but getting them to produce fruit is another matter. So, my dear Left Coasters, go and eat one of the thousand other amazing things that grows so abundantly there, and perhaps dive into some pawpaw reading material.
Try Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore for an epic armchair pawpaw journey. The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook, my pawpaw recipe zine, gives adventurous and enthusiastic cooks all they need to know to get started gathering and cooking with pawpaws (if you make the pawpaw nilla wafter pudding recipe, I promise everyone will love you forever). Don’t have pawpaws? Read it and enjoy pawpaws by proxy. Whatever you do, get outside as summer transitions to fall and take in the dynamic pleasures of nature.
Sara Bir is a foraging enthusiast and fruit nerd. She is Paste Food’s contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Sausagetarian.