I can’t attempt to describe here every dried fig on the planet, but the ones I have to hand, and they are a high-end product, are Jenny’s Figs imported from Greece. They have a whiff of molasses about them – you just need to squeeze one gently and sniff to get it – akin to a boiled down jam that has just caught on the bottom of the pan, not unpleasant, just distinctive, and it comes with a hint of cigar box and orange oil. There’s another quirk to these figs which I really like: a decided maple syrup-like after taste. With my eyes closed I can even imagine chocolate, chocolate and orange … (I think you’ve got it: I like them!).
You may not be buying such a premium product but make sure the ones you buy are free from mould and are still slightly soft, not hard and dry. Store in a cool dark pantry, or in the fridge.
I can generalise and say dried figs are honey sweet, not sugary sweet like dried dates. They’re fruity and sort of figgy tasting, and they’ll be gritty – but that’s a good attribute as it provides texture. The skin might look like elephant hide, but it’ll soften with soaking or gentle cooking.
Dried figs are a useful item to keep in the pantry. While they’re good for both sweet and savoury dishes, providing sweetness, texture and flavour as described, they are also good for us, with about twice the fibre of fresh figs and a wide range of minerals and nutrients, importantly, calcium, iron and potassium.
You can eat dried figs as they are, as a nutritious snack, or add them to baking such as cakes, fruit cakes, tarts, bars or muesli. They are also delicious added to slow-cooked savoury dishes of chicken, rabbit and lamb. The longer they cook the softer they become and if cooked right down provide a syrupy thickness to juices (you might need to cut the sweetness with a squirt or two of lemon).
In some instances it is best to soak figs first. Leave them whole or cut in half, put in a bowl and pour on hot water to cover. Soak for several hours, drain and serve with custard or ice cream, or add to steamed puddings, smoothies, fruit crumbles, fruit salads or use in raw baking.
If you want very soft figs soak as described then simmer for 15 minutes until nicely plump and tender. Use the soaking water, wine, fruit juice or stock. If using the figs in a sweet dish, sweeten lightly with honey or sugar and cook for a few minutes more.
Fresh figs can either be dried in the sun – which is tricky if you live in an area with high humidity – or dried for 12-24 hours in an oven set at its lowest setting (60°C/140°F) with the door left slightly ajar (if you have an AGA oven or similar, dry the figs in the warming oven).
To prepare for drying, choose healthy bug-free specimens, wash, dry and cut in half. Put a piece of cheesecloth underneath a rack and put the figs on the rack. Cover figs with more cheesecloth and tuck it securely around the rack so no insects can’t get in. Put the tray in full sunlight. They’ll take about 3 days to dry and you’ll need to bring them in as soon as the sun is off them. If you have a hot-water cupboard, pop them in there overnight. Each day, turn the figs over. They are ready when they feel leathery and when gently squeezed there is no longer any juice oozing from them. If you’re unsure if they are dry enough to store, finish drying them in a low oven. Pack into jars, or put in a container or sealable bags and freeze.
To dry in an oven, put them on a rack and transfer to the middle of the oven, putting them straight on an oven rack (the air must be able to circulate all around them). Turn once or twice during drying.
A fuss-free way to dry them is in a dehydrator. True, you need a dehydrator, but if you have fruit trees, or access to plenty of fruit such as strawberries, apples, mangoes, pineapples or plums, you’ll find one a joy to use and your reward will be jars of flavour-packed fruit to last you through the year.