Everything You Need To Know About Pawpaws

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The pawpaw fruit is a wild plant growing wild in deciduous regions of the Midwest United States, especially in places like Ohio. It boasts a tropical flavor totally unique when compared to other Midwestern fruits.

What is a Pawpaw?

The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is a thriving wild understory tree native to regions around the Great Lakes in states such as Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kansas, Ontario, Florida, and Kentucky in North America. As a wild fruit, like a mulberry, the best way to enjoy this native fruit is to take a long hike in the woods for the elusive (yet abundant) pawpaw tree.

The flavor of these green fruits differs from what you would expect from the Great Lakes region. It has an unusual tropical flavor that tastes like bananas and mangoes with a hint of custard apple. Many describe the flavor as an entire dessert wrapped in an unassuming shell.

The History of Pawpaw

While the etymology could be clearer-cut, many believe the common name comes from the Spanish word for papaya since the flavors are similar. When Portuguese explorers took notice of Native Americans eating pawpaws, they gave it the name pawpaw since it was very similar to papayas. 

The pawpaw remains a hidden gem of the Midwest, thanks to the unlikely tropical flavors of this native plant. Many midwest towns throw pawpaw festivals when they come into season in late fall. It’s the largest edible fruit that’ calls North America home and is seeing a sharp rise in popularity.

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Ripe pawpaws ready to be harvested.

What Does a Pawpaw Taste Like?

Native fruits of the Midwest don’t boast tropical flavors, but the pawpaw fruit is different. When eaten raw from the small tree, it tastes subtly tropical, like a cross between a banana, mango, and papaya. It also has a stark tartness like a kiwi and isn’t overly sweet.

Its custard-like flavor and a hint of banana earned it the name Poor Man’s Banana. Chilled pawpaw was one of George Washington’s favorite treats! The slight bitterness fades when cooked, and the sweetness shines through, which tastes like a cooked banana.

How to Tell When Pawpaw is Ripe

Whether heading out into the woods or hitting up a local farmer’s market, here are a few quick ways to pick out a ripe fruit. 

ColorWhen ripe, a pawpaw fruit is a pale shade of green, similar to that of a Granny Smith apple.
FirmnessPerfectly ripe pawpaw has a firmness similar to a peach. When you press into its skin, your finger should leave a mark. If it’s unripe, the skin will be hard.
SmellRipe pawpaw explodes with a sharp aroma at the peak of ripeness that’s fruity and floral.
BruisingMuch like peaches, pawpaws are prone to bruising. A little bruising is perfectly fine, but it may be overly ripe if it’s extremely bruised.

Are Papaya And Pawpaw The Same Thing?

No, papaya and pawpaws are not the same thing at all! While Portuguese explorers may have misunderstood this Native American fruit, we know better.

Papaya is a member of the Caricaceae family, which is native to South America. Here’s where things get confusing: sometimes, papaya is called pawpaw, but the two fruits are like night and day.

Pawpaw fruit grows in cooler climates in the Midwest United States and is a member of the Annonaceae family, along with native apples like sweetsop, alligator apple, and sugar apples.

Cooking with Pawpaw

Before diving into pawpaw recipes, let’s first understand how to prepare the fruit.

  1. Wash the fruit. Even though the skin is removed, giving pawpaws a quick rinse in the sink under cool water is important.
  2. Remove the pulp. The inside of Pawpaws is incredibly soft, and you can scoop it out with a spoon, similar to an avocado. Slice the pawpaw in half lengthwise, and use a spoon to scoop out the tender yellow flesh.
  3. Discard the seeds. Luckily, pawpaw seeds are very large and easy to spot. They look like giant apple seeds; most fruits have three to five seeds that pop out very easily.

Pawpaw Quick Bread: This pawpaw quickbread has all the feels of a soft, delicate banana bread. It pairs perfectly ripe pawpaws with butter and vanilla for a decadently moist, mouth-watering bread that’s easier to whip up than you think!

Pawpaw Pudding: Give your pudding an exotic makeover with this super simple pawpaw pudding recipe. The flavors are unique and taste like a fusion of banana pudding and mango. Top with whipped cream, and serve after a heavy fall meal.

Blueberry and Orange Pawpaw Smoothie: Looking for a great way to jump-start your morning with bold flavors? This blueberry and orange pawpaw smoothie is like flavor overload. It’s bright and fruity with hints of banana, mango, and blueberries and an acidic kick from orange.

How to Store Pawpaw

Sadly, pawpaws have a short shelf life. Once picked, pawpaws will stay fresh for up to a week in the refrigerator.

If they need more time to ripen, you can store them on the countertop and then pop them in the fridge once ripe. You can also freeze pawpaws to extend their life by up to 12 months.

Freezing whole pawpaws is certainly an option, but these fruits are quite large and will take up a lot of precious freezer space. The best way to freeze pawpaws is to scope out the pulp and place them in a dated freezer bag (and make fantastic ice cream!)

Nutritional Benefits of Pawpaw

The health benefits of the humble pawpaw are very similar to that of a banana. Once pawpaw fruit has around 80 calories and 2.6 grams of dietary fiber. They are high in beneficial nutrients such as Vitamin C and Vitamin A.

Diets rich in Vitamin C promote a healthy immune system and boost collagen production to keep your skin looking healthy. Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight free radicals and promotes healthy organ health.

The Other Uses of Pawpaw

The humble pawpaw fruit was a delicacy enjoyed by North American indigenous people, but it also served more functions than just a tropical treat. The tree’s bark was crafted into fences, ropes, and laces, and the stems and leaves of the tree were ground into medicine.

Indigenous people ground the bark, leaves, and fruit seeds into medicine for fever, nausea, pain, and swelling. The pawpaw tree is also an essential part of the local ecosystem of the Great Lakes. The beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly eats the leaves of the pawpaw tree for nourishment.

Where to Purchase Pawpaw

It’s more challenging than heading to your local grocery store if you want to get your paws on some pawpaws.

One way to score a batch of pawpaws is to lace up your hiking boots and head into the woods to forage. Remember that these native fruits are also a favorite of raccoons and opossums, so starting at the very beginning of the season in early September is essential.

If foraging isn’t your thing, your next best option is to head to a local farmer’s market. Pawpaw season is incredibly short, so the best time to get your hands on this exotic fruit is in September. There’s no commercial fruit production for this native fruit, so you may find it challenging to track them down.

Tara Summerville

Tara Summerville is a freelance writer with a deep love for food. She loves baking sweet treats and experimenting with different fruits and veggies for her morning smoothies. When she’s not writing, she loves powerlifting, baking, gardening, playing video games, and caring for her cats!

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