Papayas are luscious tropical fruits with smooth green or greenish-yellow skin. The flesh of papayas ranges from yellow-orange to salmon-toned, and tastes peachy-apricoty, with a musky note. Unripe or green papayas, which have a crunchy texture and sweet-tart flavor, are often used in savory salads and curries in Southeast Asian cuisines.
Originally from Central America, papayas are now cultivated in tropical climates around the world in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. The two most common types are Mexican and Hawaiian. Oval-shaped Mexican papayas are the largest—up to 10 lb.—and have greenish-yellow skin, coral flesh, and a gently musky flavor. Hawaiian papayas are generally about 1 lb. and pear-shaped, with more-golden skin and sweeter, paler flesh. A third kind of papaya, the Caribbean, has become increasingly common. It’s the brightest and sweetest of the bunch.
Ripe papayas range in color from green to yellow and everywhere in between. A mottled, spotty look is okay, as long as the papaya feels heavy for its size. A ripe papaya should give when pressed; it should feel a little softer than a mango.
Papaya skin turns yellow as the fruit ripens. Ones that are all green with skin that doesn’t give under pressure have been picked too early to ripen further but are commonly used in a spicy Thai salad. If a recipe calls for green papaya, look for one that is completely green on the outside and firm to the touch (the flesh may still be creamy yellow; see photo above). Those that are green with yellow spots and give under gentle pressure take up to a week to ripen at room temperature. Storing them in a paper bag speeds ripening. Once the skin is all yellow, the papaya is ripe. While small blemishes on the skin are fine, avoid fruits that have soft spots or mold.
The creamy texture and mildly sweet flavor of papaya is great in ice cream, mousses, custards, and fruit salads, as well as salsas or vinaigrettes to serve over fish or chicken. It can be a creamy filling for pies or bars, and makes a moist rum or coconut cake. For breakfast or a snack, cut papaya into chunks and sprinkle with chile powder or salt and lime juice—complementary additions that are popular in tropical regions.
Papain, an enzyme in papayas, tenderizes meat, so papayas are often used in marinades for beef or pork. The enzyme will prevent gelatin from setting, so papayas can’t be used in gelatin desserts.
In addition to tart and piquant flavors, papayas pair well with warm flavors like nutmeg, allspice, and ginger, and with tangy fruits like mango, pineapple, and strawberries.
Whole ripe papayas can be refrigerated for up to three days. A cut papaya can be wrapped and refrigerated for a day or two.