Real Food Encyclopedia | Pawpaws

You might be surprised to find out that the largest fruit in America — and one that could be on a tree in your backyard — is something called the pawpaw. The pawpaw has a large range, extending from Canada to Florida and from Nebraska to the Atlantic. Despite where it grows, it has a tropical taste that some people describe as a delicious cross between a banana and a mango.

The pawpaw has been used by Native Americans for centuries. The Cherokee and many other tribes ate the pawpaw and the Iroquois used the mashed fruit to make small dried cakes to reconstitute later for cooking. It is believed that the pawpaw’s range is as large as it is because its growth was encouraged by various Native American tribes.

Once the Europeans came to the Americas, they of course noticed the pawpaw. Hernando De Soto was the first Eurpoean to write of the fruit in the 16th century, saying they were “like unto peares … hath a verie good smell and an excellent taste,” and that Native Americans “through all the countrie” cultivated pawpaws. It’s thought that early European colonists mistook the fruit De Soto described as a papaya and the name morphed into “pawpaw.” In the colonial and early American period, the pawpaw made its way into the Europeans’ diets.

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Fun Facts about Pawpaws:

  • Thomas Jefferson loved the native fruit and tried to get it to grow outside of its natural element — this time shipping it over to Europe. There is a beautiful pawpaw tree growing next to his home, Monticello.
  • On their expedition up and back the Missouri river, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was able to survive, in part, by eating pawpaws. By the time of their return trip in September of 1806, Lewis, Clark and crew were “very fond” of pawpaws and actually subsisted on them for three days as they made the final push towards the end of their expedition.

What to Look for When Buying or Foraging Pawpaws

The pawpaw is hard to find at a grocery store. An interesting thing that sets the pawpaw apart is that it’s pollinated by carrion insects. It’s not the bee or butterfly that populates the pawpaw, it is flies, beetles and other bugs that eat dead things. The flowers are dark maroon and kind of look like meat, and the flowers put out a slight fragrance that is similar to rotting meat. Some folks who try to propagate pawpaws even hang rotting meat in their groves to attract these insects.

The difficulties of pawpaw pollination are part of the reason that groceries don’t regularly stock them, including that they don’t last very long on the shelf. From the point when they fall off the tree, you’ll only have a short time to use a fresh pawpaw before it goes mushy and overripe. Unlike some other tree fruits, they don’t do a good job ripening off the tree.

Combine these factors with the distribution model used by big fruit and grocery supply companies, and the reason pawpaws aren’t a household name anymore becomes apparent. When you base the success of your business on scale, commoditization and a constant supply out of season, the pawpaw doesn’t fit.

The pawpaw looks like a giant, light green kidney bean. It’s filled with a yellow pulp that turns deeper in color the riper it gets. The texture of the pulp is described as a sort of custard-like (some folks call the pawpaw the American custard apple). There are big dark brown seeds throughout the fruit, but because they’re so big they’re easy to eat around.

Once ripe, the pawpaw will fall off the tree and can be gathered from the ground. One good way to make sure your pawpaws are at peak ripeness is to shake the tree gently and grab the ones that fall off. And as mentioned above, because the fruit over-ripens quickly, you’ll want to eat/use them pretty close to when you gather them. As they further ripen off the tree, they’ll give off a really pungent, perfume-y smell, so be prepared!

To get around their short shelf-life, some companies and individuals preserve pawpaws or use them in products. There are tons of pawpaw jams out there. You can also get pawpaw ice cream and a lot of pawpaw beers.

If you want to forage for pawpaws yourself but don’t know where to look, ask the ombudsmen for your state’s park system, conservation or natural resources department.

Sustainability of Pawpaws

Just like any wild, food-producing trees (like mulberries and sassafras), pawpaws have a positive environmental impact. Trees like pawpaws that grow along the sides of watersheds and on rocky, graded soil are particularly important when it comes to erosion control. In fact, some habitat restoration projects use pawpaws to prevent erosion because they’re so good at spreading via their hardy root structure. They’re also amazing carbon sinks and do great work cooling the planet and improving air quality.

Last but not least, fruit bearing trees like pawpaws are an incredibly important food source for wildlife like squirrels, raccoons, opossums, foxes and even bears. The pawpaw is also the sole food source for the larvae of the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly. The acetogenins in the leaves of the pawpaw, which we’ll discuss below, are thought to serve as a deterrent to the butterfly’s predators. 

Pawpaw Seasonality

Pawpaws become ripe in late August through September and into October.

Eating Pawpaws

Storing Pawpaws

When you get your hands on pawpaws you’ve got three options for storage. You can keep them at room temperature and use them quickly. If they’re ripe, you can throw them in the fridge so they last a little longer (around a week). If they’re slightly under-ripe, they’ll ripen in the fridge for a few weeks or you can just freeze the pulp.

Cooking with Pawpaws

First thing is first: eat them raw. Cut them up and dig in, while watching out for seeds. There are a couple of different techniques, but expect to get a little messy. Some folks like to halve them and get in there with a spoon. If you want to use the pulp, instead of scooping it into your face, squish it through a colander into a bowl using your hands. You can also use a fancy strainer and wooden pestle if you’re at that level. The pulp freezes well.

As far as cooking is concerned, since the pawpaw has a sort of custard-like consistency, it works really well in any recipe that calls for smashed banana. This baked pawpaw pudding recipe looks awesome as does this pawpaw cheesecake. To really get a lot out of your pawpaws’ flavor, stick with pawpaw ice-cream and other cold preparations so that you don’t lose any flavor.

Preserving Pawpaws

You can make pawpaw jams and jellies, or dry them using some of these cool drying techniques like those the Iroquois used. There are also a couple of companies that use pawpaw in their beer and cider. If you’re into making homebrew, try incorporating pawpaw!

Pawpaw Nutrition

When compared with the common fruits that Americans eat, like the apple, banana and orange, the pawpaw measures up pretty favorably. According to Kentucky State University, the pawpaw has three times the vitamin C as an apple and twice as much as a banana. It has double the riboflavin as an orange and a good amount of niacin. It’s also has a high amount of protein including all essential amino acids.

The other exciting thing about the pawpaw tree is that it produced acetogenins in its leaves and bark. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, acetogenins have been studied as a tool to fight cancer. However, because of this and other compounds in the pawpaw, some folks have allergic reactions to the fruit. If you handle a lot of them, you can also get a rash on your skin from allergic reactions.