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

SEASON: Depending on where you live, peaches may make an appearance as early as May and as late as October, but they peak in June, July, and August.

CHOOSING: When it comes to peaches, local is ideal. When soft and ripe, peaches are highly perishable, and impossible to ship. Luckily, they ripen well in their basket or on your counter, going from rock hard on market day to dripping with sweet juice three to five days later. Select fruit that is not bruised. If the color behind the blush of pink is yellow (or white for white-fleshed peaches), the peaches are mature, will soften, and you cannot lose.

STORING: Store unripe peaches on the counter at room temperature in a single layer. Check them daily. Transfer those that have softened to the refrigerator to stop the ripening process, and eat them within a week.

GROWING: Peach trees are a year-round project—with delicious rewards. Trees are reasonably small and self-fruitful, so you need only one. When planting peaches, consider what you want to do with them. Eating fresh or freezing? Plant a freestone peach (those in which the pit releases easily from the flesh). Canning? Plant cling (those with pits that adhere to the flesh). Early-ripening peach varieties tend to be cling. Choose the right variety for your area, one that needs about the same amount of winter chill that you get in an average season. Growers and Cooperative Extension agents can help you pick the best variety. If not well matched to your climate, your tree may bloom too soon and have the flowers killed by a late frost, or it may not bloom at all.

A backyard tree can be managed in a simple cycle of late-winter pruning, pest-preventing oil spray during the dormant season, fertilizing, thinning a heavy crop, and thorough cleanup of fallen fruit from under the tree.[pagebreak]

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.