Among the world's oldest known foods, figs were used to sweeten dishes long before sugarcane was widely cultivated. Figs ripen during mid- to late summer, with some varieties lingering for a second harvest in early fall. Their skin can be purple, green, yellow, brown or white, and their flesh ranges from pale gold to deep, rich red. Fresh, ripe figs are best eaten out of hand but are also excellent served with cheese, grilled to accompany cured meats or savory salads, and paired with creamy desserts.
Choose figs that are soft to the touch but not wrinkled, mushy or bruised. Look for plump figs with firm stems and good color free of gray or tan spots. Figs with a webbing of delicate fissures, stretch marks revealing particularly moist and sweet fruit, are highly prized. A sour smell indicates an overripe fig that has begun to ferment.
Fresh figs are extremely perishable and should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. If need be, they can be refrigerated for 1 to 2 days, arranged in a single layer on a paper towel-lined tray. They do not ripen if left at room temperature, but if they are a bit too firm, they will soften enough to eat in a day or so.
Rinse fresh figs under cold running water and gently pat dry before serving. Overhandling will bruise the delicate fruit. The peel is edible and, unless specified in a recipe, can be left on the fruit. Use a sharp paring knife to cut figs in half lengthwise.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)