Papayas are the fourth most popular tropical fruit in the world, and for good reason. They’re sweet when ripe. They can be used as a vegetable when green. And they can turn most hum-drum salads into refreshing meals.
How to choose a ripe papaya
Papayas in the market are usually just partially ripe. Papayas turn from green to yellow-orange as they ripen, so you should choose fruits that are at least half yellow. The color change begins at the bottom and progresses toward the stem end. Papayas that are completely green with no tinge of yellow have been picked too soon and may never ripen properly.
Fully ripe papayas are three-quarters to totally yellow or yellow-orange. They will give slightly when pressed gently between your palms, but should not be soft and mushy at the stem end. The skin should be smooth, un-bruised, and un-shriveled, but slight, superficial blemishes may be disregarded. Uncut papayas have no aroma whereas cut papayas should smell fragrant and sweet, not harsh or fermented.
How to store papaya
A papaya that is one-quarter to one-third yellow will ripen in two to four days if left at room temperature. Place it in a paper bag with a banana for faster ripening. Transfer ripe papayas to a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. They will keep for up to a week, but the delicate flavor fades with time, so use them within a day or two if possible.
How to use papaya
Wash the papaya, then cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Save the seeds for a crunchy topping for a salad, if desired. Peel the papaya with a paring knife or vegetable peeler and cut the flesh into wedges, slices, or dice.
Papaya contains an enzyme called papain that breaks down protein, making the fruit a good meat tenderizer. Only unripe papayas and the leaves of the papaya tree have papain. Ripe papaya, on the other hand, has very little.
Cooks in the Caribbean islands wrap meats in papaya leaves before baking or grilling, and they also marinate stew meats and poultry with chunks of unripe papaya before cooking to tenderize the meat. Papain is also extracted from papaya, dried to a powder, and sold as a meat tenderizer. Simply sprinkling the powder on the surface of the meat, however, will not produce the desired effect. Instead, the meat must be pierced all over with a fork or skewer to allow the tenderizer to penetrate it.
Don’t use unripe papaya in gelatin molds—the papain it contains will prevent the mixture from gelling. Also, if adding papaya to other dishes, add it at the end so that the papain will not make the other ingredients mushy.
10 papaya recipe ideas
- Serve wedges of papaya with thin slices of smoked turkey for an appetizer.
- Serve sliced papaya for dessert with wedges of lemon or lime.
- Make a Thai-inspired green papaya salad with julienned strips of fruit with brown sugar and fish sauce.
- Pair papaya with crunchy jicama, toasted walnuts, and avocado for a satisfying lunch salad.
- Blend papaya and fresh pineapple with ice for a tropical smoothie.
- Make a chicken or seafood salad and add chunks of papaya just before serving.
- Top frozen yogurt with diced papaya.
- Puree papaya and stir in a bit of lime juice. Serve on waffles or pancakes.
- Cut half-ripe papayas lengthwise and remove the seeds. Sprinkle the cavities with cinnamon and nutmeg and bake as you would apples.
- Unripe (green) papaya can be treated more like a vegetable than a fruit. Try adding chunks of green papaya to stews or stir fries.