Avocado (Persea americana) is considered by some to be the world’s most perfect food. With its deliciously creamy flavor and lavish amounts of nutrients, it’s no wonder the avocado is one of the most sought-after subtropical fruits on the market today.
It has skyrocketed in popularity during recent times, a statistic attributed to certain days of the year when avocados are consumed by the millions: Superbowl Sunday and Cinco de Mayo. Widespread acclaim for the avocado did not happen overnight, however; it has taken thousands of years for this fruit to make the leap from ancient aphrodisiac to suburban party dip.
Generally considered native to Mesoamerica, some claim the first known human consumption of avocado is evidenced by archaeological remains dating back 10,000 years. Many people believe avocado was cultivated as early as 8000 BC and slowly migrated throughout Mexico, Central and South America along ancient trade routes. The fruit was considered an important staple in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican diets, and was even regarded as a luxurious aphrodisiac by the Aztecs, who referred to it as ‘ahuacatl’ (the Nahuatl word for testicle).
By the time Spanish conquistadors landed in the Americas, the avocado had been established and cultivated from central Mexico all the way down to Peru. The Spanish, who called the fruit ahuacate or aguacate, started exporting avocados from Mesoamerica to countries with similarly tropical climates by the turn of the 18th century.
When avocados finally arrived in the U.S. around the mid-1800s, they were planted in Florida, Hawaii, and California. Production was mildly successful in Florida and Hawaii, but it was only when trees were introduced to California that the industry truly took off. Today, California’s harvests account for 90% of the avocados eaten in the U.S.
The avocado has three subspecies, or races, from which all modern-day avocado varieties have evolved:
Mexican: Grows in semi-tropical highland climates. Produces smaller-sized avocados with extremely thin, smooth, green or black skin when ripe. Examples: Zutano, Puebla
Guatemalan: Grows in sub-tropical highland climates in areas as high as 3,000 meters (9,840 ft.). Produces medium sized avocados with thick, warty skin that changes from green to black when ripe. Examples: Reed, Pinkerton
West Indian: Grows in tropical lowlands around sea level or just above. Yields extremely large, shiny, smooth and green avocados that can weigh as much as 2 pounds. While obviously larger, these avocados are lower in oil content than the other two races, and don’t seem to have as much flavor. Examples: Waldin, Ruche
Some of the most popular avocados in the world are hybrids of these subspecies:
Hass: A Guatemalan-Mexican hybrid, Hass accounts for 95% of avocados eaten in the U.S. It is grown in California, Chile, and Mexico, and is a worldwide favorite.
Fuerte: Another Guatemalan-Mexican hybrid with smooth, green skin and yellow dots. Fuerte was the most popular avocado varietal in the U.S. before Hass eclipsed it on the market.
Buying & Storing
Ripe or unripe, it all depends on which day you want to use the avocado you’re buying. Waiting until next week to make guacamole? Choose an unripe avocado and let it mellow at home until you need it.
A popular misconception is that an avocado’s color is the best indicator of ripeness. A great trick to find a perfectly ripe avocado is to take it in your palm and squeeze softly; the fruit should be firm but not too hard, giving in to gentle amounts of pressure. Avoid dented or extremely soft avocados at all costs because these are overly ripe and will go bad quickly.
An unripened avocado should always be kept at room temperature; it won’t be able to ripen properly if stored in the fridge. You can speed up the ripening process by placing an avocado in a brown bag with an apple or banana. The companion fruit releases gasses into the bag that will help the avocado ripen much more quickly. When the avocado has fully ripened after a period of 2-5 days, place it in your fridge for maximum freshness.
Once an avocado has been cut open, use lemon juice to keep its green flesh from blackening. Sprinkle the juice onto the exposed area and store the avocado in your fridge within a ziplock bag.
Taste & Flavor Affinities
Depending on the variety, most avocados have a rich, creamy, buttery taste with a smooth consistency. Mexican and Guatemalan avocados have delicate, fresh flavors with slightly “nutty” undertones. West Indian avocados are a bit more bland than the Mexican and Guatemalan races, however all are delicious.
Avocado pairs wonderfully with salt and fat—a combination that is incredibly simple to utilize. Many people fail to realize that a sprinkle of salt or a dash of olive oil is enough to transport avocado to a whole new level. If you want to get more creative, however, some terrific flavor affinities for avocado include bacon, balsamic, eggs, lemon juice, lime juice, mangos, red onions, shrimp, tomatoes, and watermelon. Herb and spice pairings comprise basil, cilantro, chiles, garlic, paprika, pepper, and of course, salt, among others.
Cooking & Preparing
Avocado is an extremely easy ingredient to cook with. It can be eaten by itself, added to a variety of dishes, or can even substitute for butter or oil in baking recipes. Avocado’s creamy, mild taste is often used as a bond to help meld contrasting ingredients, which is why avocado plays a role in so many salads and sandwiches.
A good way to eat avocado on its own (more or less), is to split the avocado in half, remove the pit, and add a bit of tuna salad or shrimp into the seed/pit cavity. Take a fork and dig in!
Cooking avocado is not recommended, as its flesh becomes a bit unpalatable when heated. It tastes best when added raw to hot dishes such as chili, soups, and stews just prior to serving.
By far, the most popular avocado dish is guacamole—a dip made from mashed avocados, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, and lime juice. It is an almost universal crowd-pleasing appetizer. It’s incredibly simple to make and serves as a great appetizer for parties.
- 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lime, halved
- 1/2 onion, halved with root end and paper left in tact
- 1 serrano chile, halved, stemmed and seeded
- 3 Haas avocados, skin on
- 2-3 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Heat grill until extremely hot, about 5-1o minutes. Brush grill grates and cut sides of ingredients with olive oil. Place lime, onion and chile, cut sides down, on the surface. Do not disturb. Grill the lime 2 minutes; onion 10 minutes; and chile 5 minutes. Remove and let cool.
- Grill avocados, cut side down, last to retain their bright green color, about 5 minutes total. Remove and let cool.
- When all ingredients have come to room temperature, squeeze lime juice into a medium bowl. Quickly scoop out avocado and mash gently with a potato masher, but leave chunky. Chop chile, onion and cilantro and salt to taste. Mix until all ingredients have been incorporated and serve with chips.
Liz Unger is a food and travel writer from New York, where she is pursuing her Masters degree in Food Studies at NYU. Liz’s passion for adventure, food, and exotic landscapes has led her across seven continents throughout the past five years. She keeps a blog of her exploits at sorryimnotsorryblog.com.