By Dawn M. Swidorski
Apricots are small sweet fruits with a golden orange color, velvety skin and flesh and slightly juicy when perfectly ripe and a delicate aroma. Some describe their flavor as musky, with a faint tartness that lies somewhere between a peach and a plum. The apricot (Prunus armeniaca) is actually a relative of the plum.
The apricot has been cultivated extensively for quite some time. It is believed to be native to China and was cultivated in India as early as 3000 BC. Its introduction to Greece is attributed to Alexander the Great and the Roman General Lucullus (106–57B.C.) exported them from Armenia to Europe.
The apricot was known in Armenia during ancient times, and has been cultivated there for so long that many thought it to be native there. Its scientific name Prunus armeniaca (Armenian plum) derives from that assumption. Apricots have been cultivated in Persia (Iran) since antiquity, and dried apricots were an important commodity on Persian trade routes.
English settlers brought the apricot to North America but most commercial production of apricots in the U.S. comes from the seedlings carried to California by Spanish missionaries.
Today the cultivars have spread to all parts of the globe. Apricots are thought of as a “subtropical” fruit but the apricot is native to regions with cold winters, although it can grow in Mediterranean climates very well. The tree is slightly more cold-hardy than the peach, and can tolerate winter temperatures as cold as −20 °F. The true limiting factor in apricot culture is how late the region can experience spring frosts. Apricots flower very early for fruit trees, around the time of the vernal equinox even in northern locations like the Great Lakes region. This means the spring frost may kill the flowers which mean no fruit. The other limiting factor is large temperature swings during the winter. The trees do need some winter cold (even if minimal) to bear and grow properly but wild swings such as can be experienced in Europe and the Northern Latitudes of North America make fruit production more difficult. Turkey, Italy, Russia, Spain, Greece, U.S.A. and France are the leading producers of apricots.
Apricot cultivars are most often grafted on plum or peach root stocks. A cutting of an existing apricot plant provides the fruit characteristics such as flavor, size, etc., but the rootstock provides the growth characteristics of the plant. Apricots and plums can hybridize with each other and produce fruit that are called pluots, plumcots, or apriums.
Apricots are enjoyed as a fresh fruit but also dried, cooked into pastry, and eaten as jam. The fruits are also distilled into brandy and liqueur. Egyptians usually dry apricots, add sweetener, and then use them to make a drink called “‘amar al-dîn.”
The seeds or kernels of the apricot grown in central Asia and around the Mediterranean are so sweet that they are sometimes substituted for almonds. The Italian liqueur amaretto and amaretti biscotti are actually flavored with extract of apricot kernels rather than almonds. Oil pressed from these apricot seeds is also used as cooking oil.
Look for fruits with a rich orange color while avoiding those that are pale and yellow. A ripe apricot can be recognized by its fairly firm skin, and it will be plump and juicy when it is at its best. Fruits should be slightly soft. If they are too firm they have not been tree-ripened, and tree-ripened fruits always taste best. Place hard apricots in a paper bag and let ripen for a day or two but avoid green fruit which will not ripen.
Keep apricots cool to prevent over ripening. Store ripe apricots in the refrigerator where they may keep for up to a week. To freeze fresh apricots, simply half the fruit and place on baking sheet until frozen.Then pack in a plastic freezer bag.
Dried apricots are wonderful and available all year round. It takes about six pounds of fresh apricots to make one pound of dried apricots. A concentrated source of fiber, dried apricots enjoy the distinction of being one of the most nutrient-dense dried fruits. Sweetly tart, they are lauded for their flavor as well as their excellent snacking and baking possibilities.
The apricot is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C and rich in beta carotene. Apricots are also a good source of iron, potassium, phosphorus and calcium.
A few quick serving ideas:
- Add sliced fresh apricots or dried apricots to hot or cold cereal.
- The next time you make whole grain pancakes add some chopped apricots to the batter.
- Give a Middle Eastern flavor to chicken or vegetable stews with the addition of dried, diced apricots.
- Serve fresh apricots in your green salad when they are in season.
- Add dried apricots to your chicken salad
- Include dried apricots in your next rice or couscous dish
- Add them to your next batch of oatmeal cookies or use an apricot filling for oat bars.
Fresh Apricot Bites
Apricot Pasta Salad