Real Food Encyclopedia | Apricots
Apricots are the coquettes of the farmers market. Can you get to them while they’re still ripe and ready? Will they even show up this season? Delicate fruits that are highly susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature, apricots have no patience for the eater who dawdles. Their fleeting nature is perhaps best summed up in the Arabic saying, “bukra fil mish-mish” which translates to “when the apricots are in season” or when there is little chance of something happening.
Fun Facts about Apricots:
- Apricot pits, or “kernels” as they are called, are flavorful but poisonous until they are roasted.
- The pits vary in their level of cyanide according to the variety of the fruit and are divided into two main categories: bitter and sweet kernels.
- Bitter apricot kernels are high in cyanide but are still used, albeit sparingly, for their distinct flavor.
- Sweet apricot kernels are valued for their flavor, similar to almonds, and are low enough in cyanide compounds to be eaten out of hand as a snack or as a flavoring in foods. Amaretti cookies get their almond-like flavor from apricot kernels.
- Bitter apricot kernels are believed to have anti-carcinogenic properties and are eaten by some cancer patients as a cure, despite their toxicity.
What to Look for When Buying Apricots
Apricots are small, pitted fruit, about the size of a golf ball. They are similar in appearance to a small peach. They have a very light fuzz on the skin, are pale orange to deep saffron in color and often show a tinge of pink or red blush on the cheek.
Apricots only ripen on the tree. Once picked, they will get softer but never more flavorful. Look for fruit that is bright and colorful with no tinge of green. Ripe apricots yield to pressure but mushy texture is a sign of over-ripeness.
Dried apricots are frequently treated with sulfur dioxide gas or sulfites to protect their bright orange color. Untreated apricots are a dark brown color and are the better choice for those with sulfur sensitivity.
There are many varieties of apricots that vary in their sweetness, texture and harvest calendar. Blenheim is the most popular in the United States and has a sweet, soft flesh. Early Cots are an early season variety that is tart and firm.
In response to the apricot’s short season and delicate nature, hybrid crosses are being developed to extend season and shelf life. Most frequently, the apricot is crossed with plum resulting in the “aprium” that is 75 percent apricot and 25 percent plum; the “pluot” that is 75 percent plum and 25 percent apricot, and the “plumcot” that a 50/50 mix.
Sustainability of Apricots
Apricot trees are often heavily sprayed. Like all tree fruit, but particularly soft stone fruits, apricots can be hard to grow organically. When shopping for apricots, look for organic or growers that employ Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods to minimize your exposure to toxic inputs.
Apricots are in the market from mid-spring to mid-summer, depending on the region.
Apricots and Geography
California fields are a good home for the fruit. Ninety percent of our domestic crop grows there, followed by a distant second and third in Washington and Utah. Leading global production is Turkey, where apricots are as popular as apples in US.
Apricots grow best in a very specific climate. In order to bear fruit, they require a hard freeze over the winter, followed by a warm, not-too-damp spring. The tricky thing is that apricot trees bud so early in the season that a late frost can easily ruin the whole crop and frequently does in areas such as the Northeast where spring can come in fits and starts.
In the right conditions, however, apricots flourish. They are drought-resistant and, once established, can be quite long-lived with some trees fruiting for over 100 years.
Storing Fresh Apricots
Apricots are very delicate and do not ship well because of it. Handle your apricots gently to prevent bruising and eat as soon as possible to prevent over-ripening. Fully ripe and ready apricots can be stored in the refrigerator for one to two days but fruits that never know the chill of the icebox will maintain their fullest flavor and fragrance.
Slightly under-ripe apricots that are fully colored but a bit firm can be improved by closing them up in a paper bag for one to two days to soften their texture. Add a banana or apple to speed the process.
Cooking with Apricots
Apricots are a versatile ingredient in both sweet and savory recipes. Here are a few ideas for enjoying apricots while you can:
- Apricots are super in baked goods such as tarts, pies and muffins.
- Like peaches, apricots pair wonderfully with pork. Try throwing a few sliced apricots in with your roast where they will meld with the pan juices to create a just-sweet-enough pan gravy.
- Toss apricots in a salad of spring greens with sharp cheeses, such as chèvre or ricotta salata where the fruit’s sweetness tames their salty, tangy bite.
- For a quick dessert, grill or broil halved pitted apricots and serve them with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of crème fraîche.
Apricots are great canned and make some of the most luscious jams and other preserves. Dried apricots are also a great treat.
Apricots are a good source of Vitamin A, C and potassium, antioxidants and fiber. They are packed with iron when dried.