Summer holds few pleasures more promising than tasting that one perfect peach. Nor are there many disappointments so frustrating as the many that fail to measure up. The problem is being able to tell the difference between the two before you buy them.
After what seemed like a summer of utterly forgettable peaches, I decided to try to figure out what it was that makes that perfect piece of fruit so glorious, and so elusive. I bought dozens of samples from everyone ranging from my neighborhood chain grocery to farmers market heroes to the grower who supplies Alice Waters. I talked to scientists and I talked to cooks. I even broke out my trusty refractometer.
What I found should significantly increase your odds of finding a great peach. But unfortunately, it is still far from a sure bet. The problem is, a peach is a darned complicated thing. It doesn’t seem that way on the surface. A summer peach is the very image of innocence, the cherub of the fruit world. It’s a fruit so natural it blushes (that’s the technical term for the red stain that appears on the peel).
But beneath that unaffected veneer, there’s a world of complexity. Take the aroma, something at once floral and spicy and even nearly meaty. Think of cinnamon and roses, and a hint of lavender.
Move on to the texture. This is the subject of some debate. There are those who belong to the “dripping sack of juice” school and others who prefer their peaches nearly crisp. I like my peaches yielding as opposed to melting. Think ice cream that has just begun to soften.
Then there’s the flavor. Take a deep breath here. Start with the fragrance. Add a racy bit of acidity and balance it with a lovely, round sweetness. Not sharp like sugar, but smooth and whole like caramel.
These are just the basics. The real hallmark of a great peach is a certain quality that’s usually expressed as “wow” or “oh my God.” You taste one and it is somehow bigger than other peaches, grander, and you keep on tasting it long after the last trace is swallowed.
Ripeness is half the story
Does that sound like what you’ve been getting? I thought not. A great peach is a towering home run; what we all too often get is a long fly ball. But how do you tell the difference?
“Oh ho!” I hear you say, “I know how to pick a peach.” You look for a golden color, or at least an absence of green. You press it gently, feeling for a subtle give. You sniff deeply, looking for that spicy fragrance.
You’re right, but only halfway. That’s how you find a ripe peach. But a ripe peach and a great peach are not necessarily the same thing. A great peach also needs to be well matured.
Ripeness and maturity are separate but overlapping qualities. Maturity means that the peach has hung on the tree long enough to develop everything that will eventually lead to great flavor. A mature peach isn’t necessarily ready to eat -- it may have little flavor, or be unpleasantly crisp. But all of the factors will be in place.
Ripeness, on the other hand, is what makes a peach delicious, as opposed to merely sweet. When a peach ripens, the color changes from green to gold, the texture softens and the flavors and aromas become complex.
Peaches only mature on the tree. Ripening can happen on the tree or after picking. A great peach is both ripe and mature. But a ripe peach that is not perfectly matured will never be great, while a perfectly matured peach that is not yet ripe still has a chance if you treat it right.
What is perfectly matured? That’s the source of some discussion. Peach flavor is a balance of sweet and tart, with the trace elements that give complexity. This is particularly true of yellow peaches. White peaches, especially most modern varieties, are bred to be low in acidity, which makes them seem sweeter (though to my mind, somewhat simple).
Still, it does seem that great flavor and high sugar are closely linked. Studies at UC Davis found that consumer acceptance of peaches increased markedly when the sugar concentration got above 11%. Jon Rowley, a stone-fruit missionary and pioneer in getting high quality peaches into supermarkets, prefers a standard of 13%. That was the minimum he set in 1997 for farmers who wanted to sell fruit to the Seattle grocery chain he was working with. The program was an immediate sensation. The first year, the three stores sold 64 tons of stone fruit in only six weeks.
As far as sweetness is concerned, Rowley says: “High sugar doesn’t necessarily mean great flavor. But you can’t have great flavor without it. Peach flavor is a balance of acid and sugars, and each variety of peach and even each individual peach is different. Each has its own universe within it. It’s fascinating how one peach can be different from another.”
Rowley now works for Al Courchesne at Frog Hollow Farm, which supplies fruit to Chez Panisse as well as to Bay Area farmers markets and offers its wares by mail order.
Putting them to the test
But is there a way for a shopper to tell whether a peach is mature? That was my quest. To begin, I rounded up as wide a range of suspects as I could, shopping at as many types of places as I could and buying three peaches from each source, so my judgment wouldn’t be impaired by one spectacular example. I tried to be fair, choosing the best fruit I could find at each place.
When I got the peaches home, I made notes describing appearance, texture and initial impressions. I cut a wedge from each peach and tasted it, describing in as much detail as possible its particular qualities and assigning it a rough score on a hedonic scale of 1 to 10.
Then I got geeky. I pulled my old refractometer out of the drawer. A refractometer is an instrument used for measuring the percentage of sugar in liquids, or “degrees brix.”
I found peaches ranging in sugar content from a low of 7% to a high of more than 18%. In general, it seemed, the sweetest fruit did score best while the lowest scored worst.
The 18% peach I bought from Regier Farms at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market was “very sweet, soft, complex, not quite as acidic, incredibly mouth-filling with a long, sweet peach finish,” according to my tasting notes. At least that’s the best I can make out -- my hands were still somewhat shaky when I wrote them.
Equally impressive, another of Regier Farms’ peaches was 17% and the third was 15%. This was by far the best showing of any farmer, though Fitzgerald’s came close with a 15%, a 14% and a 13%. It must be pointed out that these were premium peaches. The fruit from Frog Hollow Farm cost $34 a dozen, plus shipping and handling. Even the farmers market peaches cost $2.75 to $3 a pound, roughly twice the price of supermarket fruit.
But the amount of sugar in a peach was not a guarantee of quality, particularly once you got beyond the highest and the lowest. Most of the peaches I bought were in the 11% to 13% range, and these were awfully hard to predict. A 13% peach from the supermarket seemed lackluster, while a piece of fruit from Frog Hollow with the same sweetness was outstanding -- in some ways even better than some of their sweeter peaches since the flavor didn’t seem to be so dominated by sugar.
In the end, the best advice seems to be to trust the farmer. After all, there is much art and effort that goes into growing great peaches. Trees must be watered and nurtured, but only at the right times. Fruit must be thinned, tossing away some peaches so that those remaining can grow bigger and sweeter. Then it must hang on the tree long enough to become fully mature, even though that means courting disaster from the weather. Each tree must be picked multiple times over several days, as the fruit on the outside and top of the tree will mature before the fruit that’s shaded on the inside. Because ripe fruit is more tender, it must be sorted, washed and packed by hand. And then it has to get to market within days.
The best peaches I got were from Frog Hollow and the farmers market stands of Regier Farms, Fitzgerald’s, Tenerelli Orchards and Burkart Farms. Art Lange of Honey Crisp has missed some markets lately because of an injury, but he must be included in any list of great growers as well. These are peaches worth the Chez Panisse treatment -- serve them dead ripe, slightly chilled, on a small plate with a sharp knife. Anything else would be a waste of good fruit.
Use the lesser peaches for recipes, where you can bolster their flavor and disguise their flaws with spicing, sweetening and careful cooking.
Treat them right
Another thing that became obvious was that it is rare to find ripe fruit at even farmers markets anymore. Almost all the fruit needed another day or two to round into form.
Peaches that are mature but not ripe when you buy them will improve at home -- if they’re treated right. Rule No. 1, and underline this: Don’t refrigerate a peach until it is ripe. The temperature of a home refrigerator, between 37 and 41 degrees, is exactly wrong for ripening peaches. That’s why you may have found chilled peaches having insipid flavor and a mealy, or cottony texture.
Instead, leave peaches at room temperature for a day or so. Peach experts at various times have recommended storing fruit in glass globes or paper bags to improve ripening, but most now say that a simple shallow fruit bowl is just fine, as long as you move the fruit around from time to time so it doesn’t develop mold or soft spots.
Maturity is much harder to predict. In fact, the consensus seems to be that there is no sure way for a shopper to determine the sugar content of a peach short of taking a bite.
Because that method has obvious drawbacks, Rowley ventures two more possible indicators: First, look at the color. While a ripe peach will be golden, a ripe peach with really high sugar will appear almost orange, as opposed to yellow. Then pick up the fruit and judge its heft. Because sugar is heavier than water, at least theoretically, a mature piece of fruit should be heavier than one that’s not. Troy Regier of Regier Farms adds that some varieties develop speckles, “sun spots” he calls them, when fully mature.
And keep in mind that among the miracles that lead to a perfect peach is the setting in which it’s enjoyed. Remember that single amazing fruit you ate by the canal in Venice? Or the one you got from your grandmother’s backyard tree?
When asked about his most memorable peach, Rowley didn’t even need to think about it. “The one that stands out in my mind was when I got married two years ago,” he says. “Al sent us a bunch of peaches for our wedding. You know how the bride and groom do the thing with the wedding cake? Well we interlocked arms and had a bite of peach.”
He pauses to think a moment. “I don’t know if it was the greatest peach I’ve had in my life, but it was the most meaningful. I wasn’t brixing, but just remembering the taste of the peach, it was at least a 16.”