The Definitive Peach Primer: Everything You Need To Know About Peaches
Photo by pa1nt
August is Peach Month, and so we’re serving up all the information you need about this classic summer fruit, courtesy of the Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green. From the history and classification of various types of peaches and nectarines, to how to pick the best ones, to some great recipe ideas and flavor combinations, this segment is the definitive Peach Primer.
Peach and Nectarine
General Description: The peach (Prunus persica) is a medium-sized round to slightly oval-shaped stone fruit with fuzzy skin. The nectarine (Prunus persica nucipersica) is similar to the peach but with smooth skin. Wild peaches originated in China, where they were small, sour, and hairy. Peaches were cultivated in China over 2,500 years ago, where the fruit was revered as a symbol of longevity and immortality. The cultivated peach traveled westward to Persia, where it flourished so well people assumed it was a native Persian fruit. (Its Latin name means “Persian plum.”) The Spaniards brought the peach back from the East and sent it on to the New World.
Clingstone peaches, whose flesh is firmly attached to the stone, mature early and are primarily used for canning. Since peaches survive canning better than most fruits, much of the world’s production is canned.
Next in the peach season are semi-freestone types, including Maycrest, Redhaven, and David Sun. Freestones, with flesh that easily pulls away from the stone, ripen later in the season, about the middle of June. The top variety of freestone peach is the Elegant Lady. Other varieties include the Spring Lady, Flavorcrest, Rich Lady, Red Top, Summer Lady, O’Henry, Ryan Sun, and Fairtime.
A nectarine is a fruit all its own, thought to have originated as a mutant of the peach. Its name is derived from the Greek nectar, meaning “sweet liquid.” Peaches and nectarines are genetically very similar but peaches have fuzz and nectarines are smooth. Many nectarine varieties have a spicy “zing” to their taste. Fuzziness is genetically dominant, but sometimes fuzzy peach trees bear a few smooth nectarines or the other way around. Clingstone varieties of nectarine include Mayfire, July Red, May Glo, Summer Bright, Summer Fire, and September Red. Freestone varieties include Spring Red, Summer Grand, and Red Diamond.
White-fleshed peaches and nectarines are savored by connoisseurs for their sweet, luscious flavor, tantalizing fragrance, and novel color. White-fleshed fruits have been cultivated for hundreds of years and have occurred in nature for thousands. Records of white-fleshed peach varieties can be traced to the mid-1600s, and white-fleshed nectarines to the late 1700s. Varieties of white peach include Babcock (the most popular), White Lady, and Sugar Giant, all freestone fruits.
Flat (or donut) peaches, originally from China, were first grown in America in the 1800s. This freestone peach is flattened, round, and drawn at the center. The skin is pale yellow, with a red blush and a small pit. It is sweet and juicy with lots of peach flavor.
Season: Peaches and nectarines ripen as the weather warms, so they are in season in the spring and summer, depending on the local climate. Because they are easy to grow both above and below the equator, they are available nearly year-round.
Purchase: Don’t be put off by fuzz. The stem end of the peach should be yellow or cream-colored. Look for a well-defined crease. The peach should have a pleasingly sweet fragrance and be soft to the touch, not mushy.
For both peaches and nectarines, crimson blush indicates variety, not maturity. For nectarines, look for smooth, unblemished skin, creamy yellow background color, plumpness, and slight softening along the seam. Ripe nectarines give to gentle pressure but will not be as soft as a ripe peach.
Avoid: For peaches, avoid “green shoulders” surrounding the stem end—a sign of a prematurely plucked peach. An immature peach will become shriveled or mushy and have tough, poorly flavored flesh. Peaches that exhibit large, flattened bruises will not ripen will. A deep red-brown color, softening of the fruit, or shriveling of the skin at the stem end indicates overripeness.
For nectarines, avoid hard, dull fruits, shriveled fruits, or soft fruits. Avoid fruits with cracked or punctured skin or other signs of decay. Russeting or staining of the skin may affect appearance but generally does not detract from internal quality.
Storage: Handle even hard unripe peaches gently, because any bruises will show later. Ripen peaches in a cool room, stem end down. When you can smell the peaches and they give just slightly, they are ready to eat.
White peaches and nectarines ripen much quicker than yellow varieties. If placed in a paper bag, they will ripen in about a day. They should be checked often. Once ripe, store in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.
1. Wash gently.
2. To cut (prior to or after peeling), slice around the seam, twist, and lift or cut out the pit.
3. To prevent browning, squeeze fresh lemon juice over cut surfaces.
4. Peel, if desired, by dipping whole fruits in boiling water for 10 seconds; remove with a slotted spoon and slip off the skins. This is generally done if cooking the peaches.
Serving Suggestions: Grill peach wedges and serve with pork or chicken. * Fold diced peaches into tapioca pudding just before serving. * Make peach crisp with oatmeal-almond streusel topping.
Flavor Affinities: Almonds, apricots, champagne, cherries, cream, ginger, honey, pistachios, plums, pork, poultry, red wine, sour cream, sugar, vanilla, walnuts, white wine.