Avocado - Persea americana
The Avocado tree is the only member of the Laurel family that's a
significant food producer. Its fruit, the Avocado, is also known as
Alligator Pear and Midshipman's Butter. Avocado and the Spanish aguacate
are derived from the Aztec ahuacatl.
Native to tropical America, this tree is a bit of a mystery. The fruit
is very large with a large seed, and rather than storing energy as sugar it
stores in the more concentrated form of oil which takes a lot of energy to
do. Clearly the avocado co-evolved with some very large animal with high
energy needs but that animal is now unknown. What is known is
that people and jaguars love avocados.
Avocado oil has a higher smoke point than any other cooking oil, it can
exceed 500°F/260°C safely, and has a health profile similar to
Olive Oil. Unfortunately it's not commonly available.
Botanists divide avocados into three groups:
- Mexican: grow well in arid climates and can stand coldish winters.
They are of smaller size with much higher oil content (15% to 30%) and more
flavor than West Indian varieties and smooth or warty green skins. They are
suitable for guacamole and other Southwest and Central American recipes.
- Guatemalan: Similar to Mexican varieties in oil content and flavor,
these avocados are of moderate size and generally have a rough woody and
somewhat loose skin. They are compatible with the California climate but
not that of Florida.
- West Indian: Most are of large size and have smooth skins. They
have about half or less the oil content of Mexican / Guatemalan varieties
(3% to 15%) and the flesh is more watery and less flavor intense. They are
not recommended for guacamole or other Southwest dishes but are fine for
Avocado dip (which includes mayonnaise and/or sour cream while guacamole
does not) They work well for West Indian recipes and those
of the American South.
- Hybrid: Most commercial avocados today are hybrids, West Indian
with some Guatemalan in Florida and various mixes of Mexican and Guatemalan
Buying, Storing & Using Avocados
- California produces 80% or the avocados sold in the U.S and also
exports to East Asia where the Hass variety has become popular. Varieties
grown in the state are of Mexican and Guatemalan extraction, small but high
in oil and flavor. California avocados are available year round, and because
they do not ripen until harvested they are warehoused right on the tree.
- Florida produces a bit less than 20% of avocados sold in the U.S..
They are all West Indian varieties with some hybridization with Guatemalan,
but with West Indian characteristics predominating. They are more perishable
than the California varieties so are not shipped as widely.
- Hawaii grows a significant avocado crop but mostly for local
consumption. Exports are limited mainly to Alaska and non-US winter
markets due to USDA APHIS requirements.
- Texas, Louisiana and other Southern states grow a few for
- Mexico is the world's largest producer of avocados with 315,000
acres vs. California's 74,000.
- Indonesia is now the second largest producer, just ahead of the
United States, but exports mainly to Southeast Asian markets. Florida
varieties have predominated there due to the wet tropical climate.
- Worldwide Mexican/Guatemalan avocados are now grown in Israel,
South Africa, New Zealand and Spain, West Indian avocados in humid parts of
Unlike other fruits, the avocado will not soften on the tree.
California avocados are "warehoused" by just leaving them on the tree
until needed. When picked they are fully mature but will be rock hard.
Because of this California allows sale of undamaged windfall, banned
here for all other fruits. Florida must sell its avocados immediately
when ready. They can't leave them on the trees because of hurricane risk.
Look for avocados that are of uniform color without black or brown spots
or bruises. When you buy them they will probably be hard and need to be left
out on the counter for a few days until softened. To tell if an avocado is
ready, hold it in the palm of your hand and squeeze very gently with your
finger tips. You're looking for it to yield slightly but not be mushy.
Florida avocados are ready when you can feel them yield to gentle
pressure, California avocados are best left for an additional day.
Refrigeration can slow softening but not by much.
Once cut, avocados darken quickly from exposure to air. To fend this off
brush the cut surface with citric acid or lemon juice, or press plastic wrap
down on the cut to exclude all air. Alternatively just let the cut darken
and dry. Just slice off the dark layer when ready to use.
Varieties - California
The University of California lists around 120 cultivated varieties known
in California, but listed here are only ones I've successfully purchased in
California: I have no idea why this is not the dominant green skin
avocado in California. This is a fairly large avocado. The photo
specimen was 5 inches long, 3 inches diameter and weighed 11-3/4 ounces
with a seed weighing only 1 ounce. This avocado is delicious, ripens
evenly, contains no fiber, has a stiff skin that can be peeled easily
or used as a cup for eating it with a spoon. It's easy to tell when its
ripe (mottled green and black), it slices nicely, but above all, it has
a tiny seed and a huge amount of flesh. The grower says they
have one tree, but intend to graft more. Purchased at a large farmer's
market in Pasadena, California.
California: this smallish avocado is oval with almost no neck and has an
excellent almost smoky flavor highly suited for guacamole and other
Southwest and Central American recipes. It has good shelf life and
accounts for about 80% of the California crop.The skin is hard, rough,
and black, even purplish when ripe. An over-ripe Hass will feel hollow
under its stiff skin. The Hass was an accident and nobody knows what
exact varieties it is descended from but it is mostly Guatemalan.
Attempts to grow Hass in Hawaii failed. 5 to 12 ounces and available
This new variety not yet widely distributed. It is very similar
to regular Hass but larger and the skin is less pebbly. It is ripe when
the skin feels just a little loose. The flesh is rich and creamy with no
significant fiber. The skin peels easily and the flesh slices very well.
The photo specimen was 4-1/4 inches long, 3-1/4 inches diameter and
weighed 15-1/2 ounces. It was purchased at a farmer's market in Los
California: a mostly Guatemalan variety, oval with a pebbly skin. It's
similar to Hass in appearance but a bit larger and the skin remains dark
green and somewhat pliable when ripe. Good flavor and makes good guacamole.
6 to 15 ounces and available during the summer months.
California: a mostly Mexican variety not as flavorful as Hass but still
fine for guacamole and other Southwest recipes. It is pear shaped almost no
neck. 6 to 12 ounces and available from fall through spring.
California: this smooth green skinned avocado has very good flavor and
is usable for guacamole and other Southwest recipes. It is a mostly Mexican
variety, pear shaped with a noticeable neck and smooth medium green skin.
This was the original California commercial variety. 5 to 14 ounces and
available from late fall through spring.
California: this large Guatemalan avocado is oval with no neck and a dark
green, slightly pebbly skin. Most production goes to food service distribution
rather than to stores. 8 to 22 ounces, available in summer months and
early fall. It is ripe when it starts to show a few black spots on the outside
and if it feels hollow it is overripe. When ripe the flesh starts to pull
away from both the seed and the skin. Flavor is good but not as intense as
California & some Florida: this avocado has a relatively long neck, thick
flesh, small seed and very dark green slightly pebbly skin. A Guatemalan
variety but not as flavorful as some other California varieties.
8 to 18 ounces and available in winter and early spring. When buying Pinkertons
check to make sure the neck is firm as some ripen unevenly and start to spoil
from the neck.
Hawaii: a Mexican Guatemalan cross that dominates Hawaiian avocado
production, and is the only Hawaiian grown avocado certified for export to
other states. This avocado has medium yellow flesh, good nutty flavor and
ripens green. Hawaiians consider it superior to Californian but little is
exported to here because meeting the USDA APHIS packaging and inspection
protocols is a real pain.
California - Parentage unknown: This is a very small avocado with good
flavor. The skin is paper thin but peelable. When ripe, the seed rattles
and the stem end becomes black. The photo specimen was 2-3/4 inches long,
2-1/8 inches diameter and weighted 3-1/2 ounces. The seed weighed 3/4
ounce. Purchased at a farmer's market in Los Angeles.
Varieties - Florida
California: a pear shaped Mexican avocado with a prominent neck similar
in shape to Fuerte but with a distinctive shiny yellow-green skin. The
skin is smooth but very thin, some will peel easily if fully ripe but others
will not. The skin is strong enough so the flesh can be scooped out. Zutanos
are ripe when the skin turns black in large areas. Shallow dimpling in the
black area is normal but it should not look shriveled. Zutanos range from 6
to 14 ounces but the photo specimen was 5 inches long and weighed 10-1/8
ounces, 7 ounces without the pit. Available from September through early
I have few pictures of Florida avocados because Florida growers don't ship
to California. This state's strict regulations designed to protect crops from
imported pests and disease make it difficult. Florida varieties are not
grown in California because they need a much wetter environment than is
available here - and they aren't good for guacamole (not enough oil).
Fortunately my lack of pictures is made up for by
Pine Island Nursery which has a very excellent set - just
click on their small pictures for a larger view and details.
Florida: a popular very large sized commercial variety with high quality
fruit and good yield. It has a smooth medium green skin and elongated mango
shape. 24 to 40 ounces and available from August to October.
Florida: very popular commercially for very high yield and fairly good
quality fruit. It has a smooth medium green skin and neckless shape. 14 to
24 ounces and available from July to September.
Florida, Gulf Coast: with its smooth purple skin and elongated shape this avocado
is easy to recognize. It is considered of very high quality and is grown from
Florida to New Orleans. 14 to 24 ounces, available from September through
Florida: a giant size avocado with dark smooth green skin and neckless
shape. With high quality fruit, heavy yield and large size it is becoming
a commercial favorite. 24 to 40 ounces and available from October through
Florida: a popular commercial avocado of good quality and very large size.
It has a smooth shiny skin and a neckless but elongated mango like shape. It
is particularly popular because it can be fully harvested before the
hurricane season. 24 to 32 ounces and available from May through June.
Hall has fallen out of favor with commercial growers in favor of Choquette
which has a longer season and higher yield but is still grown in some areas
because its cold tolerance is superior. The photo specimen was 7-3/4 inches
long, 3.9 inches diameter and weighed just under 29 ounces.
This avocado was cut at the peak of edibility when the smooth emerald skin
became splotched with black and the flesh had just started pulling away from
the skin. Eating quality and flavor of the yellow-green flesh was excellent
and it peels almost without effort. The flesh is soft and smooth without
fiber but firm enough to slice well and hold its shape. This specimen was
obtained from a Philippine market in Los Angeles. Available October and
Florida: a popular commercial variety producing very large, high
quality avocado with a smooth green skin and a neckless mango like shape.
24 to 32 ounces, available August through September.
Florida: a popular cold tolerant variety producing high quality fruit
with smooth green skin and a neckless mango like shape. 16 to 24 ounces,
available November through January.
Florida: this very large avocado is popular in the Latin communities and
easily recognized by its extremely elongated gourd-like shape. Very good
flavor but only moderately popular with growers due to moderate yield.
24 to 40 ounces, available July through August.
Florida: a very popular early season avocado for both commercial and
home growers. It has smooth green skin and elliptical shape. 16 to 24 ounces,
available June through August.
Avocado Leaves - Mexican - [Persea
americana var drymifolia]
Avocado leaves are much used in parts of Mexico as a flavoring. For
this purpose only leaves of Mexican type avocados (var drymifolia) are
useful, as Guatemala and Florida varieties lack the anise-like aroma and
Avocado leaves are used both fresh and dried. Dried ones are most available
north of the Mexican border and can be found in markets serving Mexican
communities. Dried leaves are generally toasted on a hot dry comal until
aromatic and are then crushed to powder. They may be used in soups, stews
and other dishes to impart a light anise flavor.
Toxicity: The University of California at Davis found that goats
were sickened by eating large quantities of Guatemalan variety avocado leaves.
This effect was not found with Mexican variety leaves. While it's highly
unlikely that culinary quantities of any avocado leaf would have a
detectable effect on humans, for flavor the Mexican ones are the ones you
want anyway. Photo by Ethel Aardvark distributed under
license Creative Commons
Attribution 3.0 Unported.
These leaves have been very important in cooking in Europe since at
least Roman times, and in North America since the European invasion.
They remain kitchen essentials to this day. In northern India a slightly
different leaf is used for similar purposes.
Bay Laurel -
[Bay Leaf, Mediterranean Laurel, Sweet Bay, Laurus nobilis]
One of the most ancient and important culinary spices in Europe
and the Americas, Bay Leaves are sold for high prices in little jars
in the spice section of the supermarket. Look for leaves that are
still reasonably green for good flavor. Fresh Bay Leaves are much
more aromatic and are easy to grow in Mediterranean like climates.
Here in Southern California they are very aggressive growers and I
have to hack mine back continually to keep them from overrunning the
The fresh leaves are thought to have psychoactive properties and
may have been used by oracles in ancient times but they are so bitter
when chewed nobody I know of has tried to confirm this.
Indian Bay Leaf -
[Malabar leaf, Malabathrum; Tejpat (Nepal, Assam); Tejpatta (Hindi);
Tej Patta (Bengali), Tamalpatra (Marathi); Cinnamomum tamala]
Well known to Roman cooks and still used for beer brewing in the
Middle Ages, these leaves are now little used outside of the cuisines
of northern India. Native to the Malabar (West) coast of India,
they are easily recognizable for having three prominent lengthwise ribs
rather than just a central rib (some other South Asian laurels also
have three ribs).
These leaves are considerably stronger than the familiar Bay Laurel
and with a distinct overtone of Cassia (what passes for cinnamon in the
US). I have found them in jars of cucumber pickles imported from India
(India is a very large exporter of pickles). Judging by the color, I
presume the photo specimens were gathered from such products.
Caution: packages of dried leaves labeled "Indian Bay Leaves"
are usually Indonesian Bay Leaves
which are myrtles, not laurels - look for the three ribs.
Subst: regular Mediterranean bay leaves with a bit of cinnamon
added should work fine.
Photo by Sonja Pauen distributed under license Creative
Attribution 2.0 Germany.
California Laurel -
- [Oregon Myrtle, California Bay, Headache Tree,
L. Umbellularia californica]
California Laurel is used similarly to the Bay Laurel for
cooking but I do not recommend it. Having bit into a California Laurel
fruit to see if it really did produce headaches, I had a splitting
headache seemingly in seconds. Reportedly some people are sensitive
to the leaves even after cooking. California Laurel is easy to tell
from Bay Laurel because the leaves are more elongated, pointy and
lighter in color.
It is reported that American Indians in California did eat parts
of the fruit, but under very limited conditions, and only the bottom
third. The nut, similar to an avocado pit but much smaller, is
reported edible after roasting. They are roasted quite dark and
described as tasting like roasted coffee or dark chocolate depending
on how dark they are roasted. Roasted nuts are ground and used in
Cinnamon, Cassia & Camphor
- [genus Cinnamonum]
These barks used as spices have been of great culinary importance
(and high price) throughout history, and probably long before. They are
from tropical trees that can't be grown in places like Europe and
Cinnamon - [Cinnamonum verum (zeylanicum)]
Cassia - [Cinnamomum cassia (aromaticum)]
Pandang Cassia - [Indonesian Cinnamon, Korintje;
Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and the Malabar coast of India
now grown also in the West Indies and South America. Cassia is native
to Burma and is grown in China, Vietnam and Indonesia with Vietnamese
(Cinnamomum loureiroi) considered the highest quality. The
aromatic bark of both these trees is peeled and dried for use as a
spice. The two are easily confused but pretty much interchangeable in
Shown are long Cinnamon sticks (top), standard U.S. Cassia sticks
(center), broken Cinnamon common in Indian groceries (right) and
ground Cinnamon/Cassia (left). Preference for and availability of
these spices is a mater of region. Cassia predominates in the U.S.
but is difficult to find in Europe where Cinnamon predominates. In
Mexico Cinnamon is preferred, so it is widely available here in
Southern California. China and Southeast Asia use Cassia almost
exclusively. Cinnamon is used in India and Sri Lanka. Cinnamon
generally has a cleaner, sweeter flavor and Cassia has a touch of
Pandang Cassia is used for the cheapest and most common ground
"cinnamon" in North America. This tree was planted in Hawaii in 1934
and has become somewhat of a pest.
Cassia bark is much thicker and often a darker color than Cinnamon
which can be almost paper thin. Cassia tends to curl from one side
into a cylindrical quill while Cinnamon curls from two sides into two
cylinders taking a double scroll shape quill, though exceptions will be
found in both cases. Shown are two sticks of Cassia (left), a stick of
Cinnamon (top right) and a stick of Cinnamon made up of paper thin
Details and Cooking.
This small tree, growing to about 30 feet high, is found only in
the Philippines, where it is used locally as a flavoring. The bark
contanins a lot of safrol rather than the cinnamaldehyde found in
other trees of this genus, so the aroma is of sassafras and it is
used for flavoring root beer. It also has a number of medicinal uses.
Interestingly, the leaves have the three rib design like
Indian Bay Leaf trees. This tree is Red Listed
as VU (Vulnerable) due to over-harvesting for timber.
Camphor - [Cinnamomum camphora]
The Camphor Laurel is native to East Asia where it is used in
camphor production, centered now in Taiwan where trees have been
replanted so are not depleted as they are in China. The Camphor Laurel
has become an aggressive pest in some areas where it isn't native,
Australia in particular. Camphor is used medicinally and in plastics
but not in food since it is toxic if ingested.
[Sassafras albidum (North America), S. tzumu
(China), S. randaiense (Taiwan)]
The tree that defines the taste and aroma of root beer grows prolifically
in the Eastern U.S. and into southern Ontario.
Sassafras leaves are naturally mucilaginous and are used to thicken
and flavor gumbo in Louisiana. Filé Powder, sassafras plus other
herbs and spices, was originally a substitute when okra was out of season
but now stands on its own. The leaves contain no significant amount of
Safrole (see below).
Sassafras root is now banned by the FDA since the component Safrole has
been found to be mildly carcinogenic, but young shoots, leaves and above
ground bark do not contain significant amounts. Safrole is also controlled
by the USDEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) because of its use to manufacture
Ispinku - [Ocotea quixos]
This tree, native to Ecuador and Colombia, is harvested for bark marketed
as Ecuadorian or American Cinnamon, which is similar to but not identical
to Asian cinnamon. Locally, the fruit cupules (hard shells around the
fruit) are harvested and have been used as a spice since the days of the
Incas. This spice is used for general cooking, but is particularly
important for food offerings to the ancestors. It is also used to flavor
an alcoholic drink called alajua.
Oils from this tree present a number of significant medicinal properties,
but more study is needed for general use. The photo shows dried fruit
Photo by Cillas distributed under license
Attribution 3.0 Unported.
Mexican Bay Leaf -
This shrub or small tree (up to 20 feet high) is native to southern
Mexico and extends down into Central America. It is used in Mexico as
a substitute for Bay Leaves in cooking. This plant is considered
threatened because it has been over-exploited for culinary, medicinal
and religious purposes (celebration of Domingo de Ramos). Local gatherers
are not harvesting in ways allowing for regeneration.
Photo by Ernestolapeña distributed under license
Attribution 3.0 Unported.
[Queule, Hualhual; Gomortega keule of family Gomortegaceae]
This tall tree, native to a small region of Chile, is the only species
in family Gomortegaceae and the only culinary member of order
Laurales outside the Laurel family, so we're putting it here.
This tree produces a soft, sweet yellow fruit about 1-3/4 inches in
diameter that is used to make a kind of marmalade. The tree is Red List
status EN (Endangered) due to over-harvesting and land clearing.
Photo by Diego Alarcón distributed under license
Attribution 3.0 Unported.