A fig lover’s nightmare is to have a tree full of small, hard figs sitting stubbornly unripe on the tree at the end of the season. It is often tempting to pick this end of season fruit before it’s fully mature, but will these figs ripen off the tree, or will you be stuck with sour, green lumps? It’s an age-old debate. Don’t be surprised to hear an Italian gardener tell you fervently that no, figs will never ripen off the tree, never pick an unripe fig – period. Then the next day you may hear his wife, cousin or neighbor give an equally enthusiastic yes, it’s okay to pick the fig a little early, just let it sit on the counter for a day or two and it will ripen right up.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Will the fig ripen or not?
It turns out they are both right– sort of. Figs are what is scientifically known as a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (on the tree or not), when exposed to ethylene gas, which is produced naturally by the fruit itself. Other climacteric fruits include bananas, apples, peaches, and tomatoes. Unlike other climacteric fruits, though, figs only responds to ethylene gas in their later stages of development. What does all that mean for the fig debate? Basically, a fig which has already started the ripening process will continue to ripen even off the tree, so a fig which is soft and full, but not as sweet and juicy as you might hope, will become riper if you leave it on your counter for a few days. A hard, green, sour fig on the other hand will not ripen on your counter, no matter how long you wait.
We thought we’d share a few ideas for how to make sure you end up with luscious, juicy fruits, not a sad tree full of never to be tasted figs. Unfortunately, if it has already frosted in your area, it may be too late to ripen any figs left on your tree. If frost still hasn’t hit where you live, give some of these ideas a try. Not sure if your figs are ripe or not – check out our blog post here for help on knowing when your fig is ripe.
“Pinch” the figs: Figs bear their main season fruit on the current season’s growth, which means you’ll only get figs on the new growth at the end of the branch. A good way to ensure that all your figs will ripen is to keep the new growth to a minimum by “pinching.” This method of reducing the number of fruits allowed to grow is similar to pruning a grape vine or a fruit tree and should be done in the spring after the plant sets its first leaves. To do this, find the branches from this year’s growth – they should be green and supple compared to previous year’s growth. Count the leaves on the current growth starting from the trunk side, and pinch off the growing tip so that only 5 or 6 leaves remain on the branch.
You can use this same principle later in the season as well. Some gardeners claim that pinching the ends off of branches which have already set fruit can encourage the last figs on the tree to ripen. They recommend pinching the tip off the tree late in the season, around mid-September for most of the East Coast. Removing the tips of each branch when the tree has already set fruit will encourage the tree to stop growing and send its energy in to ripening fruit instead.
Reduce the number of figs: If you find yourself mid-Summer and you forgot to pinch back the growth in the Spring using the early pinching method, don’t worry. You can apply the same principle to a tree which already has already fruited. Just pick off the smallest, greenest fruit, furthest away from the trunk. This will ensure that the tree sends its energy into ripening the fruit that remains. You’ll end up with fewer figs, but they’ll be more likely to ripen.
If, like many of the readers who are writing us now, you find yourself towards the end of fig season with no ripe figs, don’t worry, you still have some options.
Oil the figs: Another method of ripening figs is to dot the eye of the fig with a bit of oil. To do this, simply dip a Q-tip in some olive oil and brush it lightly over the little belly button on the bottom of the fig, opposite the stem. Anointing the figs like this helps seal the eye of the fruit, preventing ethylene gas from escaping and encouraging the fig to ripen faster. Figs treated this way can ripen in as little as two days. Be forewarned though, this method will not work if the figs are extremely under ripe, in fact it can cause the immature figs to fall off the tree. Additionally, many people claim that figs ripened this way don’t taste as good as figs ripened naturally. If the forecast calls for cold weather a few days out though, it may be worth your while to try to coax a few ripe figs off the tree with this method.
The banana bag method: Figs need an average daytime temperature of at least 60 degrees to ripen – any colder and the tree will begin to enter dormancy. With that in mind, one of our gardeners in Pittsburgh, Jimmy Sunseri keeps a close eye on the weather. When he sees a cold stretch coming in he recommends picking all the fruit left on the tree and putting it in a paper bag with a banana. Bananas have high quantities of ethylene gas, and will help to quickly ripen any of the figs which have already entered the maturation phase. Not all the figs will ripen he says, but you might get a few last sweet figs.
Eat them green: If all else fails you could try one of the many recipes for green figs. In Italy, green figs are added to frittatas and served on pasta. We particularly like this recipe for unripe figs and fettuccine which is adapted from the Italian version online here.
1 lb. fresh fettuccine pasta
1 medium onion, cut into a small dice
¾ pound unripe figs, rinsed and diced
4 oz pancetta, cut into a small dice
Pinch of hot pepper flakes
½ cup of dry white wine
Grated Parmesan Cheese
Recipe update: After trying this recipe according to the original instructions that didn’t require that the figs be boiled and squeezed first, and then trying it by softening the figs by boiling, we have decided we prefer the latter preparation as shown below.
In a small sauce pan, boil figs until slightly soft, rinse and squeeze out excess water. Cut the figs into small pieces. Heat enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of a large frying pan. Add the onions and sauté over medium until translucent then add the pancetta and sauté for another two minutes. Add to pancetta and onions and sauté until the pancetta begins to crisp. Add the white wine to the pan, and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, then add salt and hot pepper flakes to taste. Add half a cup of water and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the figs are soft and brown. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water, and when it is al dente drain it, reserving half a cup of the starchy cooking water. Add the fettucine to the frying pan, along with the reserved pasta water and toss in some grated parmesan. Stir together to coat the pasta in the fig sauce, and serve hot with more cheese on top. Buon Appetito!
If you know any other methods for ripening figs please share them with us. And, keep us posted if you try any of the ripening methods we mentioned here – we’d love to know how they worked for you!