During the last weeks of June, white peaches and the early yellow varieties arrive in stores. These first peaches of the season are low in acid and have a clear, sweet taste that makes them perfect for eating out of hand, but bakers should wait a month or so before they start rolling out their pie dough. Later varieties have a higher acid-to-sugar ratio, which gives the fruit more depth and complexity. Mid- to late-season peaches can stand up to stronger accompanying flavors and are the best choice for baking and using in desserts. In mid-August, start looking for the dark-fleshed Indian or blood peaches. Though usually smaller and not as juicy as their summer cousins, these peaches have a rich, almost berry-like flavor that’s unsurpassable for cooking. You can usually count on finding ripe peaches in markets until the end of September.
All peaches are classified as either freestone or cling. The flesh of a cling peach clutches at the stone of the fruit, while freestone varieties relinquish their seed more readily. You’ll rarely find cling peaches at the market: their firm flesh holds up well when cooked and is prized by commercial canners. The peaches you find at the grocery or farmers’ market are almost always freestones.
As with all produce, peaches that grow closest to your home should be your first choice. They’ll be fresher and will not have been subjected to as much handling as those that come from a more distant locale. Peach varieties are myriad and fleeting. Each variety in a geographic zone has a two-week window, more or less, in the market. Depending on where you live, you’ll find peaches with names like Red Haven, Elberta, O’Henry, Georgia Belle, and Sun Crest. Learn the names of your local varieties, if you can.
Pair peaches with flavors both sweet and tart. They go especially well with sour cherries and raspberries. Almonds, with their aromatic undertones, are also a delicious match for peaches. The sweet acidity of a ripe peach cries out for the richness of cream. Serve fresh slices with mascarpone, crème fraîche, ice cream, or just a pour of thick, fresh cream. Caramel, too, is a good match for the tartness of a peach. Bourbon, port, and sweet dessert wines are also all delicious partners for peaches.
A perfectly ripe peach should be firm. The only soft places will be the bruises left by other people pinching the peach before you got there. A ripe peach feels heavy in the palm of your hand; it will give a little, feel more voluptuous. Look for the golden or creamy background color of the skin at the stem end of the peach. Don’t be duped by a provocative blush color (varieties are being developed that are nearly 90% blush). The background color of the skin is all-important.
Size is crucial, too. Bigger is better when it comes to peaches. Bigger peaches seem to be sweeter, more fully developed in flavor. Sniff the peach you’re considering: you can smell the nectar in a riper peach.
When preparing peaches for cooking, the trick is to remove the skin while keeping as much flesh as you can on the peach. The best way to do this is to quickly blanch the peaches before you peel them. To blanch: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water heats, cut an X into the bottom of each peach. Drop the peaches into the boiling water and cook just until the skin begins to loosen, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain the peaches and then plunge them into cold water to stop them from cooking further. The peel should slip right off.
To slice a peach: run a small knife from stem to tip, cutting right through to the pit. Turn the peach in your hand, making one cut after another and let the slices fall into a bowl. Once exposed to the air, peach flesh tends to turn brown quickly. To keep the color bright, sprinkle the slices with a bit of lemon juice.
Supermarket peaches often fail us because they’re smaller, picked greener, and stored longer. But if imperfect peaches may be all that’s available, you can ripen peaches in a brown paper bag or a ripening bowl.
If you’ve picked firm, ripe fruit with good background color at the stem end, the peaches will soften in three or four days, and a lovely fragrance will beckon you. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days longer.
Don’t wash peaches until you’re ready to use them or they’re likely to develop mold.