The intoxicating sweet fragrance of fresh peaches is your first introduction to the succulent flesh that awaits beneath the fuzzy skin.

Finding the Perfect Peach

"Meet the peach of your dreams," invites a gray-haired man who's passing out samples at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco. The man is 58-year-old Seattle food maven Jon Rowley, who set out in search of a peach as good as the ones he recalls from his childhood.

Rowley's quest, which he initiated at the behest of a Seattle supermarket chain, lasted from 1996 to 1998 and covered some 2,000 miles. He canvassed the entire West Coast, stopping at orchards and roadside stands throughout Washington, Oregon, and California, where he learned to apply a bit of science to his search.

Rowley discovered the refractometer, a small, telescope-like device commonly used in the wine industry to measure the sugar content of grapes. He began using it to measure the sugar content-called brix level-in a drop of juice from each peach he tasted. "It's rare to find a supermarket peach, even a farm-stand peach, that brixes more than 12," he says, explaining that a brix of 13 indicates a pretty darned good peach. There's more to flavor, of course, than simply sugar content. Aroma plays a big role, and-as with tomatoes-acidity also matters. But Rowley found that brix levels do provide a reliable predictor of taste.

To find the best peaches―without a refractometer―follow these tips:

Scout local orchards and farmers' markets, where you can get to know the grower.

Look for golden peaches without traces of green near the stem.

If your peaches are firm, let them stand on the kitchen counter for a few days or until they're soft to the touch and display a deep, golden background color. Unlike many other fruits, which are best plucked and eaten on the spot, a just-picked peach is actually best if left uneaten for at least a couple of days.

To get the very best from your prize peaches, let the flavors shine with the following recipes.