What Is Jackfruit and How Do You Cook with It?

updated Jan 24, 2020
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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

When considering items that might make good meat substitutes, a fruit might not be the first thing that springs to mind, and yet there’s one fruit that has been getting a lot of attention for its ability to mimic certain types of meat: Jackfruit.

What is jackfruit?

Jackfruit are large fruit that come from the jack tree, which is related to the fig and mulberry. They hold the distinction of being the largest fruit of any tree — and can commonly grow up to 100 pounds.

Most of the ones you’ll see in a grocery are smaller than that, though they are still large— about the size of a watermelon with distinctive spiky skin and a long, oval shape. Jackfruit look similar to, but should not be confused with the durian fruit, which is known for its strong and funky smell. Jackfruit have none of that epic stink.

Young jackfruit have green skin, which turns brownish as the fruit ripens. The seeds are edible, and can be either cooked or ground into flour. When fully ripe, the flesh of the fruit turns orange inside, becomes juicy and fragrant, and tastes like a combo of banana and mango. But when young, the pale, unripe flesh has a starchy, stringy texture that can be easily shredded and flavored to resemble pulled pork.

Where does jackfruit come from?

Jackfruit originated in South India, and the plant is grown across Southeast Asia and the tropics. In places where it grows, the fruit is used both green and ripe in traditional dishes. The current Western craze for making it into pulled pork sandwiches originated, according to Emily Stephenson at Eater, sometime around 2010 or 2011. So while it may look like a new fad, it actually has a long and rich culinary history in Southeast Asia.

The jack tree grows and produces fruit in abundance, with little or no maintenance, making it a very sustainable crop. 

What’s the difference between jackfruit and other meat alternatives?

Jackfruit, as an unripe fruit, contains very little protein, about 2 g per half cup. While most other meat substitutes are eaten for the protein they provide, jackfruit has become popular simply because of the way that the stringy fruit resembles pulled pork when cooked. Though flavorful, and full of fiber, it’s less nutritious than other meat alternatives.

This is especially true when eating the unripe fruit, which has not had time to develop the same vitamin C and other nutrient content the ripe fruit has.

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

What do I need to know to start cooking with jackfruit?

Cooking a whole, fresh jackfruit is a project. If you choose to try it, wear gloves and protect your countertops: There is a sticky sap that surrounds the pods inside the spiky skin. To use it as a meat substitute, select a hard green fruit (once they start to darken the fruit is too ripe). Oil your knife, then cut the fruit into manageable sections. At this point, you can pressure cook or steam the sections, then separate the core, seeds and fibers when it is cooled. Or, you can trim it before cooking. If you trim the fibers away from the seeds, simply braise them in flavorful liquids for about 30 minutes before cooking in a sauce.

If you use the more convenient canned jackfruit, take care to rinse as much of the brine away as possible. I like to soak it in cold water for a few hours to extract as much as I can. You also probably won’t need to add salt to your recipe, so taste before adding any soy sauce or salty condiments. The fruit will be cut in triangles, and you can pop out the small seeds, if you want. Then simply braise the fruit in a flavorful liquid and mash with a potato masher or a fork.

There are now manufacturers selling “naked,” dry jackfruit shreds without brine. The fruit is slightly browned from oxidation, but the fruit is much more neutral and absorbent than brined pieces. If dry packed jackfruit is available to you, it will excel in your jackfruit cookery.

What does jackfruit taste like?

Green jackfruit  has very little taste on its own. The canned variety tastes more like brine than fruit, and is best cooked with other strong flavors. Ripe jackfruit tastes like a cross between mango and bananas, and it smells like candy. 

Where can I find jackfruit?

You will be sure to find cans of green jackfruit at most Asian grocery markets, where it is inexpensive and plentiful. They are your best bet for sourcing fresh jackfruit as well, although the recent interest has caused giant jackfruits to start showing up at natural foods stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (which also sells canned jackfruit). The proliferation of pre-seasoned jackfruit”pulled pork” products has put prepared jackfruit in tubs near the hummus at many grocery stores, too.

If you’re trying jackfruit for the first time, try it in a “pulled pork” preparation, as in the recipe, below. It’s also good in tacos, burgers, and “meatloaf,” where it adds some meaty texture. In its countries of origin, jackfruit is used like a vegetable and it can be added to stir fries, curries and rice dishes, so feel free to experiment there, as well.

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

The Best First Recipe to Make with Jackfruit

Robin Asbell is an author, educator and natural foods chef who creates luscious, feel-good food, blogs at her website, and posts luscious food photos on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. She writes for newspapers and magazines and is the author of 11 cookbooks, most recently Plant Based Meats.

Your turn: Have you ever cooked with jackfruit? What’s your favorite way to prepare it? Tell us in the comments below!