I grew up in northern California eating figs right off the tree, so summer just doesn't feel like summer to me without enjoying a tree-ripened fig with its warm, syrupy juices beading on the surface. Now that I live in northern New Mexico—far from fig trees—any family members who come to visit from California know that if it's summer, they'd better remember to bring some figs from the back yard.
Fig trees are prolific bearers, so when guests bring them, it's usually by the suitcase, the delicate fruits nestled in egg cartons to protect them during the trip. I love eating fresh figs plain, but to tease the most out of them and to extend my enjoyment, I make them into all kinds of delicious desserts: tarts, bar cookies, figs roasted in caramel, and even ice cream.
Figs grow best in warm climates
Figs grow abundantly in California, as well as in places where the summers are hot and the winters are mild, such as Georgia, Alabama, and Texas.
Figs enjoy two seasons. In most parts of the country, you'll start seeing them in the market in June, and then in mid-August and September. I especially love those that come later during the really hot weather, when the sugar is up and the flavor is more deeply concentrated.
Ripe figs are fragile and sweet-smelling. When you find ripe figs, hurry them home and use them fast, or else stash them in the refrigerator. Most will hold for a few days, but ripe figs can spoil, even in the fridge (they can get expensive, and you'll want to savor every one).
A fig is ripe when it's soft and the thin skin rests close to the flesh, which is moist, fragrant, and sweet. Sometimes you'll see the skin splitting open to reveal the flesh. An unripe fig, on the other hand, is firm with a cottony white layer between the skin and the somewhat dry, undeveloped center.
Coax slightly underripe figs to ripeness by leaving them on the kitchen counter for a day or two. Store them in a single layer rather than piled on top of one another; they're less likely to spoil that way.
Avoid figs that are resting on flattened sides or that are slumped in their containers. They've probably begun to turn from too much heat during travel. (You can tell sour figs by their off smell.)
The tricky part about figs is that they need to be picked ripe because they won't get much better after they're picked. But with only a thin skin protecting the tender flesh, ripe figs are fragile and don't travel well. That's why the figs you find in stores are often not at their height of perfection.
Many varieties, all sweet
Though there are many varieties of fig, and each has its own personality, I use them more or less interchangeably in cooking, as long as they have plenty of flavor and sweetness. Here are some of the varieties you're most likely to find.
Mission figs have dark purple skin and reddish-brown flesh. Missions are my favorites for cooking; I love their special intensity. These are the figs California is famous for.
Brown Turkeys, a large southern fig, have brownish skin and pink flesh. They're also grown in California.
Royal Mediterraneans are green-skinned with a purple tinge. The flesh is a whitish pink.
Calimyrnas (the California version of a variety called Smyrna) have green skins and ivory-colored flesh; they're used for drying and eating out of hand.
Kadota, White King, Everbearing, and Strawberry figs are other varieties that you may find at the market to cook and to eat out of hand.