Renee explains how to tell if a peach is perfectly ripe. Actually, she explains how to ensure you land the sweetest, juiciest peaches at the market. Here are her fave tricks and tactics.
Photo: Orlova Maria
Each summer, usually by late July, I get the call. And the conversation goes the exact same way each year. With equal parts frustration and sheepishness and sadness, my mom explains that she splurged on fresh peaches at the market, they turned out to be soul-crushingly tasteless, and she’s never, ever buying peaches again. I try to offer tricks to keep her from experiencing that again. Yet she’s pretty set on no longer being disappointed and isn’t in the mood for it. So I’m sharing them here in the hopes that we’ll all be reminded how to select a peach that’s ripe—and not just in a ready-to-eat way but an exquisitely satiating, aromatically ripe, juice-dripping-down-your-elbow-lovely sorta way.
1. Seek out local peaches
Peaches are a delicate bunch and don’t take kindly to being jostled about during shipping. Ergo, the more local your peaches, the less distance they have to traverse, the longer they can stay on the branch, and the more likely they are to be picked hours before you purchase them. Hence, ripe, Simple math.
2. Look for richly colored peaches
When you behold piles of peaches at the greenmarket or store, hold out for the most vibrantly colored and pleasing little orbs. You want a deeply hued peach that looks like it belongs in a painting by Picasso, who famously uttered, “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite-that particular peach is but a detail.” It’s not the splash of red or dark orange you want so much as an intense and uniform background color. The paler the backdrop, the more timid the flavor. And eschew any stone fruits with a tinge of green, please. That’s an indicator that the peach isn’t ripe and was plucked from the tree way too early.
3. Fondle peaches to ascertain softness
Can’t emphasize enough the need to use delicacy here. Don’t grab a fruit and pinch it as you would your niece’s cheek. Let the fruit rest heavy in the palm of your hand and give it an ever so slight squeeze. If you’re met with barely any resistance and just a gentle yielding, take it home and let it sit a day or so before you bake. If instead it feels soft but not squishy, it’s a candidate for baking or eating out of hand that same day. If the peach already appears bruised, it’s overripe. And if it wasn’t bruised before you held it but is after, be a decent human and own your mistake by buying it anyways and tossing it into pie or preserves where you can still put the fruit to good use and mask your gaffe.
4. Sniff the stem end of peaches
Looks ripe. Feels ripe. But does it exude the intoxicating aroma of ripe peach? You want to hold the stone fruit close and inhale. There’s some dissension on this topic, but in my experience, a perfumed fragrance emanating from the peach, notably the stem end, is (unscientifically) correlated to its sweetness. The more intoxicating the smell = the more knee-wobbling the sweetness. Caveat: If the peaches are stored at the store chilled, the fragrance will be muted.
Photo: Linda Hughes
5. Take note when you find some lovely peaches
I rarely opt for peaches when I have to buy them already bundled into those pint boxes. You want to select each peach yourself. And when you do find them, take note of where you found them, whether you Instagram the farm stand at the market where you found the loveliness or you simply take a photo for yourself of the sticker that came from that magical shipment at your local grocery store.
And then, once you get home . . .
You’ve selected your peaches. You’ve managed to transport them safely to your counter without the bagger dropping or squishing them. And then you notice that, in your giddiness, you misdiagnosed and the peaches piled high in crates that were sooooooooo tempting are harder than you thought. To help ripen ’em, simply tuck them in a brown paper bag for a day or three. This traps the natural ethylene gas they emit which will, in turn, hasten ripening.
Once your peaches are firm yet still have a little give or even softer, you can be unconventional and simple and grill the peaches. Or you can go with tradition and turn them into our peach cobbler, which folks are saying is “the finest that I have ever, or will ever, eat.”
Or the slightly more time-consuming and sophisticated peach and crème fraîche pie.
If you end up with peaches that got a touch too soft to hold their shape when sliced, simply turn them into preserves, such as this sweetly tart peach and rhubarb jam, and all will be forgiven. Or at least disguised.
And if you still end up with hard stone fruits…
If you’re the impatient or even the intrepid type, slice or julienne rock-hard specimens for use in recipes that capitalize on their tart unripeness, such as summer’s surprise sleeper, a Peach Slaw from chef Michel Richard, which swaddles the slices with ginger-spiked yogurt. I’ve also tried woefully underripe peaches in place of green papaya in Thai and Vietnamese recipes to lovely effect. And I’m guessing they’d make an interesting swap for pomelo when doused with sweetened fish sauce tempered with lime and crushed peanuts.