Anyone who’s eaten a peach won’t soon forget its lusciousness, but the range of flavors among varieties might surprise even the most ardent peach lover. There’s the subtly sweet, white Sugar Lady; the tangy, bright yellow Flavorcrest; and the oh-so-aromatic, orangey Sun Crest. But that’s just a start.
Fresh peaches, of course, are delicious out of hand. But as a pastry cook in Los Angeles, I learned to use every type of southern California peach for cobblers, sorbet, breaded and baked desserts, ice creams, and soufflés. And it doesn’t get any more American than a peach pie; after all, American fruit lovers have picked the fuzzy stone fruit since European colonists first brought the species to the Eastern seaboard. (A native Chinese plant, the peach was introduced to Europe through the Silk Road trade routes.)
Both Native Americans and settlers carried peaches west, and commercial production began in the 19th century. Today Georgia might be known as the Peach State, but more peaches are grown in California than anywhere else in the United States (New Jersey, South Carolina, and Michigan are other top peach-growing states).
Among my top picks is the insanely juicy O’Henry peach, a deep-yellow-orange variety. The O’Henry — sometimes referred to as the Cadillac of the fuzzy varieties — provides a reliably blush-red color and sweet, juicy fruit time and time again. It’s a freestone peach, meaning its flesh comes easily away from the pit, rather than clinging to it. I’ve sautéed O’Henry slices and wrapped them in prosciutto to create a decadent salad topping, puréed them with a touch of maple syrup for summer popsicles, and grilled them, topped with a dollop of whipped cream, for an easy dessert.
Another favorite, the squat-shaped Saturn peach, has a white, wildly fragrant flesh that hints at rose blossom; it’s almost intoxicating. Although white peaches can sometimes be fibrous, this variety has a smooth, silky texture. Also known as the Doughnut peach, the Saturn is perfect eaten fresh, but it makes a great cobbler or baked dessert as well.
Nectarines are really peaches minus the fuzz. Because their soft skin led to easy bruising, nectarines weren’t widely grown until the late 1930s, when a SoCal producer introduced the Le Grand, a standout hybrid yellow-peach-and-Pakistani-nectarine cross. Relatives include the Late Le Grand and Fantasia; all three boast a bright orange fruit, intensely aromatic flavor, and a satisfying combination of high acidity with high sugar content. I love pairing the tangy flavor of these nectarines with rich coffee syrups; the blend of sweet fruit, robust coffee, and acidity from both works in savory dishes (such as peach salsa with coffee-marinated skirt steak) as well as desserts. A layered peach and coffee semifreddo is as refreshing as it is complex.
Many trips to the farmers’ market have taught me a thing or two about finding a great peach. Search with your nose; a fragrant aroma suggests excellent flavor. The flesh should be on the firm side but give way at a touch; avoid any mushy or blemished fruit. Once you’ve found a variety you love, buy a lot; the fruit will last four to five days in the refrigerator. Peaches typically peak in flavor by late July and August, but clever breeders have created late-blooming varieties, expanding the season through October.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I’d wake up early every Wednesday, making my way to the market for a taste. I made friends with a woman who purchased produce for many of L.A.’s restaurants; we’d walk from stall to stall with her refractometer, checking the sugar content of each peach. She explained how the hot California sun helps concentrate the sugars in the fruit, and how a peach picked unripe will never taste as complex because the sugar content doesn’t change once removed from the tree.
Of course, not everyone can live in southern California, where that hot weather and rich soil provide just the right mix to produce wildly tangy peaches. (I’ve sadly since left myself.)
But even if you live miles away from the Golden State, skip the red billiard balls you’ll find in commercial grocery stores; they won’t give you any of the satisfaction of flavor or texture a good peach should. Instead, seek out local growers, use your nose to find fragrant fruit, and savor the peachy possibilities in your cooking.
Katherine Sacks learned the ins and outs of pastry while working in kitchens on both the east and west coasts. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago magazine, and Culinary Trends magazine. She writes about all things food at LaVitaCucinare.com.
Related recipe: Peach and Espresso Semifreddo
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