One of the more fragile summer fruits, figs sweet flavor and soft texture are a welcome additon to both savory dishes (paired with lamb, bacon, and cheeses), and in sweet treats like tarts. Botanically, the fig is not a fruit at all, but an inverted flower.
Available from early summer into fall, fresh figs have a voluptuous teardrop shape, velvety, supple skin, and a fleshy inside that’s studded with small, crunchy seeds. Naturally sweet and syrupy, figs are delicious eaten out of hand. They’re also wonderful paired with salty meats, rich cheeses, or tart flavors.
Figs grow in Mediterranean climates on the gnarly branches of the Ficus carica tree, which is a member of the mulberry family. Though referred to as a fruit, a fig is actually a syconium, a fleshy structure that’s filled with hundreds of tiny flowers; the true fruits of a fig are what we think of as its seeds. Most likely native to western Asia and widespread in the Mediterranean, fig trees are among the earliest known domesticated plants, dating back some 11,000 years.
There are several varieties of figs that are widely available in the U.S. Black Mission figs are very sweet blackish-purple skin and pink flesh. Brown Turkey figs are large, with maroon skin and mild flavor. Calimyrna figs are large, with golden skin, pinkish-white flesh, and a nutty flavor. Kadota figs are is less sweet than most other varieties. They have light-green skin and few seeds, and are best eaten out of hand.
Look for fruits that are heavy for their size and soft, yielding to gentle pressure. A ripe fig can be plump, but often the best ones are a little shrunken and wrinkled, possibly showing cracks in the skin. Look for a distinct bend at the stem. Avoid fruits that are very firm or overly squishy or that show signs of milky sap at the stem. And look carefully for signs of mold, the biggest enemy of ripe figs.
A fig's skin is edible and almost never peeled, except for rough patches or when the skin is still on the thick side. Simply rinse gently and use, discarding the stem.
The sweet flavor of figs pairs perfectly with rich ingredients like butter, cream, and nuts. It also balances salty flavors, which makes figs a welcome addition to a cheese plate featuring cured meats and aged cheeses. Vinegar, citrus, warm spices, honey, and wine are other flavorings that play well with figs.
Versatile figs make a delicious addition to any meal. Stir chopped figs into yogurt or mix them into cream cheese for slathering on bagels. For a light lunch, quarter and toss them into a salad with arugula, crisp pancetta, and a tart vinaigrette, or add them to a pizza or a panini along with mozzarella and pesto.
For an easy but excellent appetizer, wrap figs in slices of prosciutto, or stuff them with goat or blue cheese to eat raw, grilled, baked, or broiled. To feature figs in a main dish, chop them and stir them into a pan sauce for duck or pork chops. Figs, perhaps obviously, also make a fine dessert. For an utterly simple finale, drizzle figs with honey and top with a dollop of mascarpone. Or use them in a delicately sweet tart like the one below.
Use fresh, ripe figs within a day or two. Leave figs at room temperature with space around each fig for air to circulate and enjoy them within a day or two. Figs will last a little longer in the fridge, but taste best without a chill.