What could be more evocative of summer than biting into a fuzzy, sun-warmed peach, with pliant (but not too soft or mushy!) bright orange flesh, and sugar-sweet juice that dribbles halfway down your arm? After all, although peaches can technically be found — albeit, often in rock-solid, tasteless and bone-dry iterations — in supermarket fruit bins for the better part of the year, they’re truly at peak, fresh-off-the-tree form from late June through very early September. Which means that right this moment is the very best time to feast on perfect, end-of-summer peaches!
Like plums and apricots, peaches are a member of the rose family, and distinguished by their velvety skin. They’re classified as drupes, meaning a fruit with a hard stone (if you want to get technical). Peach varieties can be either Clingstone, where the flesh of the fruit clings to the stone, or Freestone, where the stone readily twists away from the fruit. Freestones are the most common fresh peaches available in markets, as they’re the easiest to pit, have soft, juicy flesh, and are perfect for recipes that require uniform slices. Meanwhile, Clingstone peaches are firm, often used for canning, and best suited for recipes that call for diced or puréed peaches.
Both are available in white and yellow varieties.
White peaches, common to Asia, have a pearly pink skin and white flesh, as well as a somewhat sweeter, more floral aroma and flavor. Europeans and Americans have typically cultivated the yellow-skin, yellow-flesh varieties, which have a higher acid content. The downy skin of the peach is generally flushed with red coloring, in both yellow and white varieties. The most widely available peaches are round in shape, with a pointed end, but they can also be flat and disc-shaped, like the Saturn or Donut peach, which have rounded sides that draw in toward an indented center, like a donut without a hole.
Unsurprisingly, restaurants are currently making the most of local, farm-grown peaches, on both the sweet and savory sides of their menus. Start with a refreshingly fruity Peach Fuzz cocktail at ABC Kitchen, made with Owney’s rum, fresh peach and fresh lime juice, followed by an unctuous Pate with a peach-based version of the Italian condiment, Mostarda, at the farm-to-table staple, Cookshop.
Margaux, a stylish new Mediterranean spot at the chic Marlton Hotel, pairs peaches with summer greens in a sprightly, seasonal Salad. And the stone fruit is showcased to beautiful effect in a variety of sumptuous desserts — try the Olive Oil Cake filled with basil-macerated Frog Hollow peaches at Gabe Stulman’s French eatery, Montmarte, the White Peach Tarte Tatin cloaked in caramel at Polo Dobkin’s new Brooklyn hotspot, Meadowsweet, and the Peach en Papillote at the critically-acclaimed Dover — tender peaches wrapped in parchment and bathed in nutty brown butter.
Of course, not all peaches are created equal, so keep these tips in mind when searching for perfect specimens at supermarkets and farm stands. You want a peach that is at least mature, even if it’s yet to be ripe. While peaches continue to ripen after being picked, if they are actually green, they’ll never ripen correctly. That means, keep an eye out for color — yellow peaches should be uniformly golden, white peaches, creamy and pale. The best place to evaluate a peaches true color is near where the stem is, since less sun reaches this area. Also, check the fruit for bruises, scratches or dented areas; the skin should be taught with no wrinkles. And don’t forget to give it a sniff; a ideal peach should smell exactly how you’d want it to taste! Touch is another important indicator of freshness. Like many other fruits, peaches should be heavy for their size. Gently squeeze in the palm of your hand… if the peach is rock hard, put it back. If it has a slight give, it will ripen within the week. If it’s getting soft, it’s ready to go, so eat that peach right away!
Store ripe peaches unwashed, stem side down, at room temperature, making sure to leave plenty of space between them. Putting peaches in a paper bag will hasten ripening. Refrigerate when ripe, unwashed, but not for more than a couple of days since extended chilling may rob the fruit of its juice and flavor. Before using peaches, simply wash them in cool water and dry with a paper towel or soft cloth to remove the excess fuzz. The easiest way to pit Freestone peaches is to make a cut on the seam all the way around and through the fruit down to the pit. Then twist each half in opposite directions. Clingstones are a bit trickier. It’s best to cut the sections right from the whole fruit by slicing down to the pit and removing the desired amount. As with apples, pears and peaches, lemon or other citrus juice will prevent browning on cut areas.
Spices and seasonings that go well with peaches include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, coriander, mace, sherry, Marsala, rum, and amaretto.
And needless to say, peaches are awesome in pie, baked into muffins, bread and cobblers, swirled into smoothies and cocktails, topped with ice cream or yogurt, or cooked down into chutneys or jam. But be sure to think beyond sweet — peaches pair wonderfully well with lean proteins such as pork, as well as poultry, such as chicken, quail, Cornish hen or squab. Substitute peaches for tomatoes in a terrific summer Caprese Salad. Puree into Gazpacho, crowned with a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream. Layer into a Panini, with salty slices of cured ham, or halve and place flesh down on the grill, to accompany a backyard barbecue spread.
So go on and load up on peaches while you still have the chance… because like all of our favorite, fleeting seasonal ingredients, it won’t be long before they’re just a sweet, sticky summer memory.