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What are Papayas?

Description, uses, nutrition, purchasing, and storage.

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Papaya
Photo by nemuneko.jc [flickr]

Papayas are a large fruit grown in tropical regions that has a variety of culinary uses. The papaya can range in size from approximately 6 inches long to two feet and can weigh up to 20 pounds. Papaya skin can range in color from green to yellow depending on variety and ripeness. Papaya flesh can range from yellow to an orange-red color, again depending on variety.

Papaya has a slightly musky flavor and is slightly less sweet than many other fruits. Some have even described the flavor as having hints of tomato or carrot. The center of papayas are filled with glossy black seeds that are also edible and have a slightly spicy flavor.

Culinary Uses

Papaya is eaten both ripe and "green," or unripe. Ripe papaya is usually eaten fresh, while green papaya is generally used in cooked dishes. Fresh papaya can be eaten as is, tossed into fruit salads or salsas, blended into smoothies, or dried into fruit leathers. Fresh papaya is particularly nice with a simple squeeze of lime juice.

Green, or unripe, papaya can be cooked and added into stir fries, stews, or curries. Green papaya has a texture similar to that of squash. Although it can also be eaten fresh, green papaya does not have the same sweetness as fresh papaya.

The small, glossy black papaya seeds are sometimes dried and ground, then used in place of black pepper. They can also be added into recipes fresh, without drying, for extra texture or flavor. They are sometimes sprinkled over salads for their unique appearance and texture.

Papaya contains an enzyme called papain, that is often used to tenderize meat. The enzymatic meat tenderizing properties make papaya a common ingredient in tropical marinades. This same enzyme can interfere with the solidifying action of gelatin, so papaya should not be used fresh in gelatin based desserts.

Papaya Nutrition

Papaya is an excellent source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, folate, and fiber. Papayas also contain several other phytochemicals including lycopene and polyphenols. One cup of fresh papaya contains about 55 calories, zero grams of fat, one gram of protein, 14 grams of carbohydrates, and three grams of fiber.

Papaya Purchasing and Storage

Red fleshed papayas are generally larger and should have mostly green to slightly yellow skin. Yellow fleshed papayas are slightly smaller, more round, and should have mostly yellow skin. Papaya flesh should yield gently when squeezed, but not be overly soft. Choose a papaya that smells light, fresh, and slightly sweet. Overly sweet or saccharin smelling papayas may be past their prime. A few bruises or black spots on the outside of the papaya are perfectly normal, although excessively damaged papayas should be avoided.

Papayas that are purchased slightly under ripe will continue to ripen when stored at room temperature. When purchased at the peak of ripeness, a papaya should be refrigerated to extend its shelf life. Once cut, papaya should be refrigerated and eaten within 3-4 days.

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