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ingredients and techniques

About Apricots

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Apricots are potentially one of the most underappreciated fruits in America. If you've ever bitten into a cottony supermarket apricot, you understand why. At their best, apricots are sweet and tart, juicy, but not as gushy as ripe peaches, yet firm-fleshed. At their worst, apricots are flavorless and dry.

This is why, as with so many other fruits, you're better off avoiding the produce department at your local grocery store. I can't say this enough--most high-volume grocery stores are more concerned with shelf life than flavor. Do your tastebuds a solid and try to find a local apricot grower who will sell you ripe apricots rather than unripe ones that have been chilled and transported to within an inch of their lives.

If you cannot find decent fresh apricots, you will undoubtedly be able to find delicious dried ones. Dried apricots may not be substituted for fresh, but they make a wonderful addition to cookies, baked goods, and fruit and nut mixes.

All In the Family

Apricots are members of a very diverse genus, which encompasses all of the so-called "stone fruits." These are plums, damsons, sloes, cherries, peaches, nectarines, and almonds.

You may have seen a new stone fruit crop up in the past few years. This fruit is a cross between the apricot and the plum and is called a pluot, aprium, apriplum, or plumcot. Variations of this fruit have been known for centuries in places where both plums and apricots are grown, but have not been widely available in the US until recent years.

Buying Apricots

Look for apricots with smooth skins--not wrinkly, shriveled ones. They should be light orange to pink. Do not buy green apricots for the obvious reason that they are unripe and will have an inferior flavor. Ideally, apricots should have a very light, sweet scent similar to that of a peach but less intense. Apricots should not be rock-hard, but slightly soft (not mushy).

Storing Apricots

To help slightly unripe apricots ripen, place them in a paper bag. Close the bag and allow them to sit undisturbed in a warmish (but not hot) place for a few days. Ideally, the fruit should be allowed to ripen on the tree, but most apricots are a representation of climacteric fruit, meaning they can continue to ripen once they are picked. This is possible due to the production of ethylene gas. As the fruit ripens, it produces more ethylene, and when the fruit is enclosed in a paper bag, this ethylene is trapped, increasing the rate of ripening.

Store ripe apricots at room temperature. While it is tempting to hold them in the refrigerator, they will have a much better flavor if they are not chilled. Do not pile ripe apricots on top of one another in a bowl. As pretty as this may be, it will most likely lead to the fruit being bruised.

The Kernel

Within the hard outer shell of the small pit, or stone, within the apricot lies a seed which is similar in flavor and appearance to an almond. These seeds are not almonds, although they are related. Apricot kernels are used to flavor the Italian liqueur amaretto. Some traditional desserts, such as cherry clafoutis, featuring stone fruits call for the kernels to be left in the fruit. Theoretically, this allows the kernel to impart some of its almond-like flavor into the dessert.

Apricot kernels contain small amounts of cyanide. Normal consumption of these kernels (which most people don't eat anyway) is not a threat to your health.

Eating and Cooking With Apricots

When apricots are perfectly ripe, there is no better way to eat them than out of hand. However, should you find yourself in possession of inferior specimens (or if you simply have too many to eat outright), there are plenty of ways to make them more palatable.

For the record, there is no reason to part an apricot's flesh from its skin. The skin is so thin and tender, it will prove no obstacle for the diner. What's more, the skin helps hold the apricot's shape, which is ideal unless you want mush.

My favorite quick and easy way with apricots is to roast them. Simply cut them in half, remove the kernel, and place them in a lightly greased baking pan. Sprinkle them with brown sugar, then top with a pat of butter. Roast them at 400˚F until they are nice and tender. This takes longer than you might think. Apricots can be resilient. Set a timer for 20 minutes at first, then check them every 10 minutes or so after that. When the sugar has caramelized and the apricots are starting to break down, take them out of the oven and serve them warm with vanilla ice cream.

Apricots also make a fine substitute for peaches, although depending on how sweet your apricots are, you may need to add more sugar.

Apricots pair well with vanilla bean, honey, lemon or orange zest, and light, sweet white wines.

Other articles you might enjoy: Apricot Boysenberry Crumble, Baked Stuffed Peaches, Peach Pie

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Reprinted with permission from Guittard Chocolate Cookbook by Amy Guittard (Chronicle Books). Copyright (c) 2015.

Author's headnote: I often pick flavor combinations based on...