The fig is often referred to as a fruit, though it's actually a group of tiny flowers growing inside an edible shell. Most of the world's figs are grown in Greece, Portugal, Turkey, Spain, and California. Best in autumn, figs are intensely sweet, so they're used in desserts, though they work in savory dishes and are eaten whole as well. Fresh fig season is short, but dried figs are available year-round.
What Are Figs?
The edible fig is technically a syconium (a mass of inverted flowers) of the common fig tree (Ficus carica, of the mulberry family). Each flower contains a seed and they're covered by an edible pear-shaped pod, which is often thought of as the fig "fruit." The color depends on the variety, including white, green, red, and purplish-black. Figs have been cultivated for centuries, originating in the Middle East. Cultivation has spread to hot, dry climates throughout the world and today Greece, Portugal, Turkey, and Spain produce the most. For the U.S. market, an overwhelming majority of dried and fresh figs are grown in California from self-pollinating cultivars. Texas also produces figs.
Traditionally, figs were used as the sweetener for desserts prior to sugar. They can be eaten whole, baked, fried, grilled, or roasted. Dried figs are common because the fruit is so delicate and does not store well. Due to their short season and fragile nature, fresh figs are expensive but canned, dried, and frozen figs are considerably more affordable.
How to Cook With Figs
The entire fig is edible, so you'll want to wash the outside right before eating. While the stem is digestible, it's often removed because it's dense and fibrous. The fig can be left whole or cut into halves or quarters and eaten as is, chopped, ground, pureed, or cooked. A variety of cooking methods are used, including baking, broiling, frying, and grilling. Figs are popular in syrups and jams and often used as a topping for yogurt, ice cream, and salads.
Dried figs are a convenient alternative to fresh, and can be used as a substitute in many recipes. One pound of dried figs is equivalent to three cups of chopped fresh figs. If dried figs become too hard, soak them in water to reconstitute them.
Figs can be paired with a variety of savory foods. They are famously delicious with blue cheese and salty aged cheeses. Try them with accompaniments like garlic, olives, and capers, citrus fruits such as lemon or orange, or cured meats like pancetta, bacon, and ham. They're also delicious with full-flavored vinegar (balsamic or sherry), nuts of any kind, rich dairy products (cream, mascarpone, and crème fraîche), and warm spices (cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and star anise).
What Does It Taste Like?
Fresh figs have a sweet, honeyed taste and a soft, squishy texture studded with discernible seeds that give it crunch. Dried figs have a concentrated sweetness and a chewy texture; the seeds are nearly undetectable.
You will find a wide variety of fig recipes to explore. From jams and preserves to cookies, bread, and pastries, even smoothies and salads, there's a lot you can do with this fruit.
Where to Buy Figs
Figs have two seasons: a quick, shorter season in early summer and a second, main crop that starts in late summer and runs through fall. They're typically available in well-stocked grocery stores and specialty markets. Figs cannot withstand cold temperatures, so they are not available from local sources in much of the Midwest and the northeastern U.S. Fresh figs are sold by the pound and expensive because they are fragile and the season is so short. For a more affordable, year-round alternative, almost any grocer will stock dried figs. Canned and frozen are other options.
You're unlikely to find perfect, unmarred fresh figs. Instead, look for slightly wrinkled but still plump figs that give slightly to pressure. As long as they're not weeping or leaking, split figs are perfectly fine. A bit of bend at the stem and a slight weariness to the skin indicate better ripeness and flavor. Shiny skins and stems that look like they're still grasping for the tree are not as ripe. They may soften a bit if left in the sun for a day, but figs don't ripen once harvested.
Avoid figs that look shrunken, are oozing from their splits, have milky liquid around the stem, or are overly squishy. Check for any sign of mold on the fruit or container as well. Figs that smell a little sour have begun to ferment and should be avoided.
Plan on eating fresh figs within a day or two of buying them. They keep the best at room temperature with plenty of air circulating around them. They will keep a bit longer in the refrigerator, but chilling detracts a bit from their full flavor. To preserve them, flash-freeze washed, whole figs in a single layer before transferring to freezer bags. Frozen figs are good for three to six months, though they will be softer once thawed. Another common option is to preserve figs in syrup or liquor.
Dried figs should be stored in the original packaging or an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one month at room temperature. They can also be placed in the refrigerator for six months to one year. Canned figs are best eaten within one year.
Figs vs. Dates
When eaten dried as snacks, in particular, figs and dates are similar, though they are unique fruits. Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree and more of an oval shape. Dried dates are also typically deep reddish-brown and stickier than dried figs. The biggest differences are that dates are seedless, so they don't have the crunch of figs and dates are far sweeter and stickier.
Black Mission and Brown Turkey figs seem to be the most common in most markets, but a wide range of figs—including striped Adriatic figs and pale green Kadota figs—is increasingly available. While there are subtle differences in flavor and sweetness level, figs do more or less taste like figs, so there's no reason to be wary of trying a new variety.
One thing that turns some people off from figs is the belief that the fruit contains dead wasps. While some varieties of figs rely on pollination from the fig wasp, the majority of fig varieties eaten today are self-pollinating or pollinated artificially.
Traditionally, however, figs do rely on the female fig wasp for pollination. For that to happen, she's trapped inside the growing female fig flower at the end of her life. The flower then produces an enzyme that breaks down the wasp's body into protein as it grows into the "fruit." While there was technically a wasp inside the fig at one time, you are not eating a wasp; the crunchy bits are tiny seeds. This has led some vegans, in particular, to avoid eating figs of any kind.