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How to Pick a Papaya

My parents grew up in Hawaii, so even when they moved to California, tropical fruits were still fairly common around the house. One that I always underappreciated was the papaya. I remember we’d always do simple preparations like papaya cut with lime juice or with cottage cheese or yogurt. 

When I got older, I learned to love papaya, especially in smoothies! Papayas can be tricky fruits though, as for most of us they seem so foreign. How do you tell when they are ripe? How do you pick a good papaya? When are they starting to go bad? We’ll be going over everything you need to know about how to pick the perfect papaya. 

How to Pick a Papaya

There is no secret in how to pick a papaya. By looking at the color, skin, and smell you will be able to tell if your papaya is ready to enjoy. 

Know the Variety You Want

There are literally dozens of varieties around the world. The two most common varieties of papaya in the United States are: 

Papaya still attached on a tree
  • Mexican Red and Yellow papayas
  • Hawaiian Sunrise / Strawberry papayas

We’ll only be discussing the most common varieties you can find in your local supermarket. 

Mexican Red Papayas and Mexican Yellow Papayas

These papayas are the bigger of the two main types growing well past 12 inches in length and weighing over 3 pounds. They are cylindrical in shape with a slight taper on the stem side. Color wise, these papayas are sold with green yellow to yellow colored skin. 

In San Diego where we live, they are by far the most popular and prominent variety sold in our stores. In the rest of the country you should see a more normal split between Mexican and Hawaiian varietals. 

Mexican red papayas have a red-orange flesh (the part you eat). Mexican yellow papayas have a yellow-orange flesh and are slightly sweeter. The flavor of the Mexican papaya (especially the red one) is more subtle and muskier than that of the Hawaiian varieties. 

All Mexican papayas make great additions to fruit salads and freeze really well for smoothies, sorbets, ice creams, and the like. 

Hawaiian Sunrise Papaya also known as Strawberry Papaya

How to pick a ripe papaya in a wet market

The Hawaiian Sunrise Papaya is also known as a Strawberry Papaya. This is the smaller of the two main varieties you will see in your local supermarket. Strawberry papayas are the shape of a small football to a large pear. 

They have green to yellow skin and reach roughly 1 pound in size. Their flavor is definitely sweeter than the Mexican variety but still with relatively subtle flavor. Strawberry papayas have very little musky flavor, unlike the larger Mexican Reds. 

Overall, papaya is really good for our health and even for dogs. You can add this tasty treat to their meal aside from their usual dog food. Since it is rich in fiber and healthy enzymes, it can improve your dog’s digestive health.

Look at the Color

Color is the main signal for ripeness when it comes to papayas. Color change helps signal to birds and other animals it is time to eat the fruit and spread the seeds. Papaya are very much like bananas. They are picked green and ripped in transport to their final destination. 

When they get to the store they are moving in the yellow direction. Here’s what to know about the colors:

  • A fully yellow papaya is ready to eat
  • A yellow orange papaya is heading into overripe territory but is still edible
  • An orange papaya is almost certainly overripened

Examine the Texture

The texture of the skin won’t really tell you if a papaya is ripe but it will tell you if it is bad. Any black spots, sunken spots, white specs, cuts, or bruises are a no go. 

Smell the Papaya

Much like a pineapple, you can smell the ripeness of a papaya. You are looking for a melony scent with no hints of mold. 

Squeeze the Papaya

The common convection for testing if a papaya is ripe is to gently squeeze the skin. If the papaya gives slightly under pressure it is ripe. 

Papaya with berries

While this does reliably work to tell if a papaya is ripe, too often will you find papayas in the store with black or moldy finger print size depressions. Unless you are planning on eating the papaya the day you buy it, we recommend buying a green yellow papaya and to finish the ripening at home. 

Look for Mold

Papayas are notorious for mold. Papayas are giant tanks of water and sugar but without the hard shell of their melon cousins. All that goes to say that papayas are ideal homes for molds to grow and thrive. 

When you buy a papaya you do not want to see dark spots, sunken spots, or cuts in the skin, all of these are prime targets for mold to grow. Again a papaya is not a melon – damage to the skin will lead to mold growth. 

Related Questions

How Can You Tell if a Papaya Is Ripe?

A papaya is ripe when the underlying flesh is soft to the touch giving to gentle pressure. While color is the signal a papaya may be ready to eat, a pressure test will definitely yield more definitive results. 

Be careful not to press too hard, as bruising your papaya and continuing to let it ripen will lead to dark sunken spots where the papaya will spoil quickly. We only recommend doing a pressure test at home when you are committed to eating the papaya in the next day or so. 

Can You Pick a Green Papaya?

Yes, you can pick a green papaya. Fully green papayas are immature though and will never ripen to the same state as their yellow counterparts. One of the most famous dishes from Southeast Asia is green papaya salad, and it is delicious. 

Conclusion

The next time you are out looking for a papaya, ask yourself when you want to eat it. The short term shelf and fridge life of the papaya means it must be treated more like a banana than a melon. 

If you are hoping to enjoy your papaya today or tomorrow morning for breakfast aim for an entirely yellow specimen. If you want to save your papaya for the weekend, aim for a green-yellow one and ripen it at home. 

Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. With inspirations like Alton Brown and Gordon Ramsey, Nathaniel focuses on simple processes to make amazing food.