For many food lovers, fresh peaches are the pinnacle of perfection. In her cookbook, In Season, seasonal food evangelist Sarah Raven declares it a crime to cook a ripe peach. Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef at Farallon in San Francisco, says she prefers uncooked peaches in her desserts, and when she does apply heat to the peach, it’s just for a moment. It’s not that peaches don’t stand up to heat well. They do. But yes, a perfectly ripe, juicy, raw peach is a thing of beauty.
Which is better: a Georgia peach, a Colorado peach or a Texas peach? That depends where you are. Deborah Madison, in her excellent seasonal cookbook Local Flavors, remarks that these “quintessential fruits of summer” should always be “tree-ripened and untraveled.”
How to Use Peaches
In On Food and Cooking, food scientist Harold McGee explains why: “They do not store starch and so get no sweeter after harvest, though they do soften and develop aroma.” Fresh peaches will never be much better than the moment you buy them — if they were harvested truly ripe. Obviously delicate, peaches ripen rapidly at room temperature, don’t last in storage, and become mealy if refrigerated before they’re ripe. If you’re lucky enough to find a treasure trove of peaches, you’ll want to use them quickly. Peaches can be frozen, canned, pickled, dried and made into fruit leather. Purée peaches into an aromatic syrup to flavor iced tea and cocktails, or simmer a simple sauce, with or without additions.
Peaches have quite a few flavor friends, pairing particularly well with dairy, toasted nuts, vanilla, bourbon, brandy, honey, ginger, mint and many fruits, especially apricots, berries and citrus fruits. They lend pork, poultry and seafood dishes a bit of sweetness.
Alongside peaches’ sugars, you get a slew of antioxidants, important trace minerals, healthy fiber and a wee bit of protein.
Peaches may have white or yellow flesh, which can be firm or meltingly tender. They either have a pit that pops out easily (freestone) or one that adheres to the flesh (clingstone). White varieties have a flowery perfume that amplifies their flavor. William Woys Weaver, an expert on fruit and vegetable varieties, recommends white-fleshed ‘Saturn’ peaches for fresh eating. Madison likes yellow-fleshed ‘Sun Crest’ and ‘Redhaven’ for cooking. The best peach variety you’ll probably find, however, is the one grown closest to where you are when you eat it.
Peaches peel easily if dipped first in boiling water, then in an ice bath. The time they’ll need in the boiling water depends on ripeness, but averages from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Get the water boiling, dip in the peach, transfer it to the ice bath, then slip off the skin. Another easy way to peel peaches is to freeze them first. When you remove them from the freezer and run warm water over them, the skins will slide right off.