Real Food Encyclopedia | Avocados
Avocados are thought to be native to south-central Mexico. According to Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” they have been cultivated for over 7,000 years. The Aztecs enjoyed the fruit — indeed, guacamole is an Aztec invention. One of the first Europeans to try avocado ate it with cheese (he thought it resembled a pear), and the first mention of the fruit in English dates from 1672, in Jamaica. Avocados were first planted in the US in the mid-nineteenth century — in Florida in 1833 and in California in 1856.
Fun Facts about Avocados:
- The word avocado comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) ahuacatl, which means “testicle.” A less common name for the fruit is “alligator pear.”
- Guacamole is traditionally made in a molcajete, a Mexican mortar-and-pestle made from volcanic rock. Molcajetes usually have to be seasoned by grinding rice in them, and sometimes whole spices like cumin.
- A California postman named Rudolph Hass accidentally developed the eponymously named (and now ubiquitous) Haas avocado. Mr. Haas patented the avocado in 1935.
- Rumors of the avocado’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities have followed it for centuries, but apparently, in the 1920s, a clever ad agency employed reverse psychology with a campaign denying the supposed effects to sell more avocados.
What to Look for When Buying Avocados
Avocados vary considerably in size, shape and color depending on the variety. Its skin may be smooth or bumpy, bright green or black, and they can be pear-shaped, egg-shaped or spherical. The common Haas variety has bumpy skin, is shaped like a pear and turns black when ripe. Most varieties have golden-yellow-green flesh with a large, brown pit. Avocados have a mild, fruity flavor and a creamy, dense texture — depending on the varietal, some will be oilier and some more watery.
An avocado is ripe when it yields to gentle pressure when squeezed. In some varieties, like the popular Haas, the fruit’s skin will turn from green to black when ripe. The California Avocado Board has a nice little guide to how to tell when an avocado is ripe by variety.
Sustainability of Avocados
Avocado trees require quite a bit of water — each piece of fruit represents 60 gallons that went toward its growth — and that’s obviously a problem in a state like California where drought has been persistent.
Speaking of water usage, Civil Eats reported that avocado production may be consuming more than its fair share of water in certain areas in Chile. (Chile is a major exporter of the fruit to the US in the California off-season.) Tom Philpot expands upon all of this in his Mother Jones article on avocado production and water, with some great graphics on water use by fruit type and by avocado-growing country.
Pesticides and Avocados
Avocados rank number one on the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Clean Fifteen guide, which means the pesticide residue on the fruit is fairly low. (And because the skin is not eaten, your risk of pesticide exposure is even lower.) However, avocado root rot is a serious disease in avocado trees, and fungicides are sometimes used as part of the control of the disease. Organic and fair trade (for avocados grown outside of the US) are available.
In much of the US, the Haas variety is what shows up in the supermarket; these avocados are available year-round. Other common varieties of avocado are generally in season from the end of the summer through mid-fall (depending on the type). Here is a great guide from Food Republic to some of the more common avocados and when they are in season.
Avocados and Geography
California, Florida and Hawaii grow the most avocados in the US. The Haas and Fuerte varieties of the fruit are the most popular in the US, with the Haas accounting for 95 percent of all of the avocados grown in California. Globally, Mexico leads the way in avocado production, followed by Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, the US and Columbia.
Avocados are the fruit of the Persea americana tree, in the laurel family. Avocados have some interesting relatives, including bay laurel, cinnamon, cassia, camphor and sassafras (all of which are also trees or shrubs). Most avocado varieties require warm, humid conditions to grow, but some cultivars from Central America are resistant to light frost. Avocados are generally commercially propagated through grafting, but you can easily grow your own avocado tree from the pit. According to this guide to growing avocados, an avocado seedling may not produce fruit for 15 years, after which the tree can be productive for over 40 years.
Avocados are classified into three different “races:” Mexican, Guatemalan and Caribbean. Many of our common varieties (like the Haas and the Fuerte) are hybrids of several avocado races. Mexican food expert Rick Bayless notes that the creamy Haas variety is a Mexican hybrid, the larger Fuerte a Guatemalan, while Caribbean avocados tend to have less oil content and a fruitier flavor than either Mexican or Guatemalan types.
Store unripe avocados on the counter until they ripen, then stick them in the fridge, where they will keep for up to a week. Do not store unripe avocados in the fridge — they will never soften. Ripen too hard avocados by placing them in a paper bag with a ripe banana. Ripe bananas emit ethylene gas that causes some fruit (avocados included) to ripen quickly.
Cooking with Avocados
Most of us in the US automatically think of guacamole when we think of avocados. The modern variations on guacamole are endless, but the dip originated with the Aztecs and has been around since at least the 15th century (and probably before). We can’t talk about avocados without talking about Mexican and Central American cuisine, where they are used liberally in sauces, dips and garnishes. Both avocado pits and dried leaves are also used in Mexican cuisine — especially in moles. The dried leaves are usually toasted and pulverized, and the pit grated.
Avocado pairs very well with strong flavors like citrus, alliums (think onions and garlic), chiles, chocolate (yes!), coconut, cilantro and tropical fruits (think mangoes). Avocados are primarily eaten raw, but cooked avocado dishes pop up with more frequency, like avocado fries and grilled avocado. Note: some avocado varieties don’t do well cooked, as they get bitter. Haas is a good choice if you plan to apply a little heat. Avocado oil has a fairly high smoke point and is pretty tasty drizzled on veggies and in vinaigrettes.
No doubt that guacamole is one of the world’s most perfect foods, but the fruit is incredible in other savory dishes and in desserts, too. They do very well paired with chocolate. As in this vegan chocolate mousse made with avocado or these avocado fudge pops. In many parts of the world, the practice of putting avocado in desert is de rigueur. In many Southeast Asian countries, you’ll find “milkshakes” of various stripes made with avocado. Check out these Indonesian coffee-avocado milkshakes or these Vietnamese avocado shakes made with sweetened condensed milk. You can also make delicious, creamy avocado ice cream with and without dairy.
Because the fruit is high in fat, it makes a nice substitution for mayo in sandwiches. Lately there has been a craze for avocado toast, which is literally just ripe avocado spread on toasted bread. But here’s a basic recipe for avocado toast that you can jazz up in all sorts of ways — a squirt of Sriracha, sliced radishes, chopped tomatoes, hard boiled egg, sesame seeds…you name it.
Prepping the fruit takes just a teeny bit of work: a favorite way of pitting an avocado involves gently striking the pit of a halved avocado with the knife blade, avocado in hand. However, pitting avocado that way is a leading cause of knife wounds across palm, so here is an alternative method. Once pitted, you can peel the skin like you would an orange or scoop it out with a spoon, then slice and dice the flesh any way you like. Just make sure you have a little lemon or lime juice on hand. Avocado flesh turns an unappetizing gray-brown almost immediately after exposure to the air. Sprinkling a little acid (like citrus juice) on the flesh keeps the flesh nice and green.
Avocados are nutritional powerhouses: the fruit is loaded with healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber, including Vitamins C and K, B vitamins and potassium. They are high in fatty acids (omegas -6 and -3), which are important in brain function, metabolism, and bone, skin and hair growth. The fats in avocados may also help promote heart health. Interestingly, people with latex allergies are sometimes allergic to avocados as well, due to cross-reactivity. Assuming you’re not allergic, the fruit is also good for your skin.