A Cook's Guide to Fresh Apricots
Apricots are one of the ephemeral pleasures of summer's highly-anticipated stone fruit season. At peak ripeness they are tender and silky, with bruisable skins and plump, intensely colored cheeks filled with perfumed juice. Knowing what to look for when buying apricots—as well as what to expect once you split yours open—is helpful in making the most of the fruit. And if you understand how to use your apricots at all stages of ripeness and quality, you'll get far more out of your fruits. But perhaps the most important thing to know about these stone fruits is this: Apricots are versatile and play very well with other ingredients, that's true when they're either raw or cooked.
The Joy of In-Season Apricots
Because apricot trees bloom early in spring, they are susceptible to late frosts—this means the success of a crop should give you all the more reason to celebrate. The best apricots are in season around midsummer and appear briefly at local farmers' markets. Eating an impeccable apricot out of hand is one of the small but true pleasures in life. Never be ashamed to serve a simple bowlful as the end to a special meal. They are beautiful and truly can stand alone. And if you like to eat seasonally, you will have about three weeks to enjoy apricot excess, but the scented fruits can be used in many more ways.
After the purist's dessert of the fruit and nothing-but-the-fruit, try this: split them open, remove the pits nestled in velvet and fill the soft hollow with rich strained yogurt drizzled with honey and topped with toasted, slivered almonds. Another option is to slide a sheet pan of de-pitted apricots under a broiler until their edges begin to caramelize, just five to eight minutes. You could also spoon mascarpone into those hollows, then dust them with crumbled amaretti biscuits. Eat the fruits while they're still warm—spooning up the juices that the heat will have coaxed from the luscious fruit. The same stuff-the-center approach can be used to make savory and irresistible little apricot appetizers—just fill the raw halves with crème fraîche (or goat cheese) and top with fresh herbs.
Out of Season
Apricots shipped from climates where they are ripe can appear very early (or late) in the local season, and even in winter at the grocery store. A tray of glowing fruit in December (when they ripen in the Southern Hemisphere) is cause for serious temptation. Long-haul apricots are bred less for flavor and more for appearance and for enduring rough travel. These can be disappointing, especially if you have tasted the real deal. But even bland, flabby, or mealy apricots can be redeemed. Our secret? Cooking them in applications in which their acid is accentuated. They work very well with slow-cooked meats (think tagine-like stews), sweet and sour sauces, bakes, and jams. We also feel strongly that you have to make at least one apricot cobbler each season. If you have access to fresh fig leaves, these apricot and fig leaf packages are unusual and delicious.
Apricots harvested too early and still under-ripe may look appealingly rosy, but will be crisper and distinctly tart; still, this makes them perfect for poaching and jam making, their pectin content setting the jam naturally. Used in savory dishes, unripe apricots are an acidic helper, collapsing and becoming part of a braising sauce, adding sourness where you might usually use vinegar or lemon juice. In the Middle East, completely unripe, hard green apricots are considered a delicacy, added whole to stews, and also pickled. They can be purchased at Middle Eastern groceries around mid-spring. And in East Asia, unripe ume (the apricot species Prunus mume) are a fleeting treasure used for making syrup, for infusing in hard liquor to make plum wine, or umeshu, as well as umeboshi, pickled apricots. Any unripe apricots can be used in exactly the same way.
Please Don't Squeeze
When choosing apricots from a jumbled farmers' market crate, note whether any seem bruised—this may indicate that they are very ripe. That's a good thing, but be sure to gently choose the fruit you want. Whatever you do don't squeeze them. If they are packed in trays or small boxes the gentlest of touches will tell you how firm or soft they may be. Very firm means more acidic.
Ripe apricots will also smell wonderful. If you lift a boxful to your nose, your olfactory senses will ping loudly when the fruit is ripe. Snap them up and carry them home in triumph. Keep them out at room temperature for a few days, but they are perishable and should be used soon. Wash them just before you eat them, or they tend to spoil more quickly.
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