Your Guide to Papaya: How to Choose and Enjoy This Luscious Fruit

Whether you want a green fruit for savory recipes or a ripe one for sweet dishes, we'll guide you towards papaya bliss.

Papaya fruit on white marble
Photo: leonori / Getty Images

A luscious subtropical fruit, papaya can be used in many different ways: The fruit can be breakfast, dinner, drink, dessert, and even medicine. Despite its versatility and popularity across the globe, papaya can be an intimidating fruit to choose. Football-sized (but heavier) and hidden in a sheath of tissue paper, how are you supposed to pick a good one without upsetting an entire grocery store display?

To help you as you embark on your next trip to the store, we're sharing everything you need to know about papaya, including tips for selecting and choosing the right fruit for your recipe.

What Is Papaya?

Carica papaya is the botanical name of the papaya tree. Its slender, bare trunk is topped by an umbrella of deeply lobed leaves. Female trees carry the fruit just below that canopy. Male trees bear flowers only (which are edible). Papaya are native from southern Mexico through northern South America, and are one of the oldest fruits in cultivation. They have naturalized in many subtropical and tropical regions. Apart from the fruit, many cultures value the young leaves and buds as a vegetable, and the seeds as both seasoning, tenderizer, and medicine.

Despite its heft, papaya is a berry, filled with edible, peppery black seeds. The juicy yellow, orange, or rosy flesh of a good papaya is sweet with a musky intensity. The fruits may be fist-sized or larger, depending on the cultivar. Papaya skin is thin and the fruit is highly susceptible to viral and fungal diseases; most papayas are treated in some way to combat these pests. These treatments range from the use of fungicides to hot water baths before shipping. One of the most notorious papaya diseases is papaya ringspot virus (PRS). It is transmitted by fruit flies and threatens papaya production worldwide. To combat PRS, genetically modified papayas were pioneered in Hawaii, and since 1998 most papayas cultivated there are PRS-resistant crops. (Two examples of these cultivars are 'Rainbow' and 'SunUp'.) If you are concerned about genetically engineered fresh produce, look for labels that specify "no GMO," or that a crop is certified organic. (It's important to be aware that organic doesn't mean unsprayed: many organic-approved pesticides are highly toxic.)

The United States is the world's biggest importer of papaya and grows only about 0.1 percent of total world papaya production (in Florida, California, and Texas). India is the world's largest papaya producer, followed by Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Mexico. For export, papaya is picked underripe. (Like other subtropical fruit—think avocado, banana, passionfruit—papaya continues to ripen after harvest.) This makes the fruit easier to transport since ripe papayas are very delicate. Some fruit will also be subjected to Delayed Ripening (DR) technology, either by genetic modification or the physical control of ethylene (the so-called fruit-ripening hormone) production which can affect flavor.

Why Does Papaya Smell Bad to Some People?

Two friends sharing the same papaya may have very different reactions to its smell and flavor. To one it is delectable, but to the other it is offensively bad-smelling. This is not because the fruit is bad. Several factors may contribute to papaya's sweaty sock reputation. Its most famous enzyme, papain, breaks down proteins (which is what makes papaya an effective meat tenderizer); any protease enzymes can produce bad-smelling molecules, and presumably some people are more sensitive to the volatiles produced. The off-smell may also be due to glucosidases, whose sulphurous-associations also give the mustard family its distinctive reek for some people. Finally, papaya contains a spectrum of B-vitamins (making it exceptionally nutritious), which are sometimes linked with a strong smell (think love-it or hate-it Marmite).

Where Can You Buy a Papaya?

Most grocery stores stock papayas year-round. If you live in a city with Asian, Caribbean, or Central or South American communities, fresh produce markets in those neighborhoods can be the best place to find good papaya, thanks to high turnover and discerning customers. Papayas can also be ordered online, shipped directly from growers to your door.

How Do You Select a Good Papaya?

It is notoriously hard to predict the flavor of a papaya unless you have literally picked that papaya ripe off a tree, but many of us can't. The best way to tell a good papaya from a bland one in a store is to pay attention to labels. Where if it was grown, what its name is, and where you bought it will allow you to keep track of the good and the tasteless. Smaller papaya tend to have predictably better flavor; look for elongated 'Strawberry' and similar cultivars (they have red flesh). Another good tips? Papayas grown near to market, or else transported there quickly, tend to taste better. If you are eating a papaya that as been on board ship or kept in storage for weeks, the results are harder to predict.

If you want to eat a sweet and ripe papaya, choose a fruit whose skin is already beginning to change color from green to yellow or orange. Better yet, buy a papaya that has reached peak color and is not bruised. Keep a ripening papaya at room temperature and only transfer it to the fridge when perfectly ripe.

Choosing and Using Green Papaya

If you are looking for an unripe, green papaya to use as a savory salad or vegetable ingredient, the fruit should be hard and deep green. Its flesh and seeds are white. At home, green papaya can be kept in the refrigerator. Raw, it has a crisp texture that holds onto any dressing beautifully. A Thai-style green papaya salad makes classic use of this crunchy ingredient: Pair it with limes, chiles, fish sauce, and a few other key ingredients to delicious results.

Choosing and Using Ripe Papaya

The best way to tell if a papaya is ripe is by its scent. A ripe papaya smells richly good and slightly musky. When ripe, a papaya is soft, at which point you slice, scoop out the seeds, and inhale a spoonful. The addition of a squeeze of lime juice creates a refreshing and nutritious breakfast. To honor papaya's southern Mexican roots, a sprinkle of chile powder makes a delicious snack. Small papayas, halved and roasted, are a simple and elegant dessert. If the papaya's flavor turns out to be bland, whizz it up in a blender with lime and honey for a makeover in the form of a smoothie. Or add yogurt for a restorative papaya lassi. A spicy chutney will make the most of a large papaya.

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