Stop walking by papayas in the supermarket with a shrug when you're shopping, and give them a try. Papayas are a healthy, delicious way to add spark and a nutritional boost to all sorts of menus and recipes.

Eaten both green and at peak perfection, a papaya's ripeness helps you decide the best way to help it reach its full, tasty potential. Here's how to know if a papaya is ripe and ready to eat as-is or green and in need of a little extra love.

Green Papayas

Although they don't have a lot of flavor on their own, green papaya is the perfect pairing for bold flavors, particularly in popular, Thai-inspired green papaya som tam salad recipes. Shredded, pounded into peppery perfection, and married with chilies, garlic, lime and other ingredients, humble unripened green papaya becomes something special, well worth the extra preparation effort.

Cookbook author and Asian cooking expert Andrea Nguyen recommends looking for green papayas in Asian market produce sections. A good green papaya should be firm, with no bad spots, according to Nguyen.

According to Cook's Illustrated, the taste of green papaya is comparable to jicama and cucumber, which both make good substitutes when unripe papayas aren't available.

Almost Ripe, Golden and Green Papayas

Once a papaya's outside flesh has started to turn from green to golden in some spots, it's on the way to ripeness.

Most papayas in the market are slightly underripe and need a bit more time before they're ready to eat. Place your papaya in a brown paper bag, and it will fully ripen in a day or two. Add a banana, which also produces the ripening booster ethylene, and speed up the ripening process even more.

How to Know if a Papaya Is Ripe in Three Steps

Whether you're lucky enough to be near a tree that's dropping ripe papayas or you need to plan a few days ahead, you can tell if a papaya is at peak perfection by checking for three indicators:

  1. Color: About 80 percent of the fruit should be golden when a papaya is ripe.
  2. Give: When you place gentle pressure on the large end, the papaya is ripe if it gives a bit. 
  3. Bruising: Check for bad spots and bruises, and pick a papaya with soft, smooth skin. A few dark spots are OK, and they start to appear when the papaya is very ripe. 

Once you have a ripe papaya, you can slice it and eat it plain, toss it in a salad, whip it up in a salsa, or put it in the refrigerator to slow down the ripening process and keep it ready a while longer.

If you've tasted papaya and were disappointed it wasn't as sweet as its tropical fruit cousins the mango and pineapple, science might have some good news to offer. Australian researchers, who prefer to call the fruit pawpaw, are making breakthroughs in unlocking the papaya's genetic code to make it even sweeter.

“We’re unraveling the sweetness pathway using traditional breeding and advanced molecular gene selection, and this knowledge [can] then be applied to other crops,” Dr. Rebecca Ford, a researcher at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, said. She adds that they're working on cracking the secret to sweetness in papaya.

Until science catches up, shoppers and cooks have to rely on their senses and know-how to find the sweetest, best papayas. And now that you're ready to pick pawpaws like a pro, the only limit to what you can do next is your culinary inspiration.

About the Author

Becky Bracken

Becky Bracken is a lifestyle, parenting and real estate journalist who has written for outlets including Realtor, Babble, SheKnows, CafeMom, Complex and more.