“I am thinking, of course, of the peach before I ate it.” Peach, D.H. Lawrence (1923).
Romanticizing fruit is a task best left to the poets, who have better language for conveying what is inherently perfect about a ripe summer peach. That leaves the rest of us with the more enviable responsibility: to eat the peach.
Peaches are one of the final fruits of the summer season, ripening only when we can’t wait another moment to pluck them from the tree. And good thing we are out of patience, because once peach season begins, there is no time to dawdle.
Ripe peaches are notoriously delicate, offering you precious little time from farm to table to sink your teeth into their sweet, juicy flesh. If you’ve ever reached for a peach and felt like you instead were gripping a water balloon filled to maximum capacity, then you already know the best place to eat a ripe peach is over your kitchen sink.
Because peaches are quick to ripen, the best way to store fresh-from-the-market peaches is on a flat surface, spread a few inches apart from one another. Peaches are climacteric fruit—a category of produce that continues to ripen after being picked. These fruits let off a gas that aids in ripening, and if stored too tightly, it can accelerate the process and cause the peaches to quickly rot.
Of course, this can also work to your advantage if you find your peaches are not quite ripe enough to enjoy. Place them close together or even in a brown paper bag for an afternoon, and you’ll find that they are sweeter and juicier.
While a ripe peach is undoubtedly perfect eaten out of hand, they are a versatile kitchen ingredient, both raw and cooked. Though the velvety skin can be a welcome textural and color addition, if it is not your preference, peeling a peach is quite simple. Use a sharp paring knife to score an X at the bottom (opposite the stem-end) of the peach. Drop the peach in simmering water until the skin begins to shrink from the X-end (about 10 seconds, or longer for larger or unripe peaches), and then transfer to an ice water bath. Once it is cool, the skin should slip right off.
Like many fruits, peaches are sweet and juicy enough to be served raw in any application. Use uncooked peaches as an addition to a summery grain bowl, layered in a creamy trifle, or tossed with fresh greens for a self-dressing salad. Arrange the peaches over sweetened mascarpone for a fresh tart, folded into freshly-churned vanilla ice cream, or tucked into a rice paper wrapper for a Vietnamese-style salad roll.
Raw peaches are also perfect for infusing spirits, which you can enjoy long after the sun has set on summer. Soak sliced peaches in neutral spirits, like vodka or rum for a peach-forward cocktail ingredient, or in bourbon or other whiskey to sip on its own or stir into a new-fashioned Old Fashioned.
Of course, cooking peaches can enhance their natural sweetness, and when grilled, roasted, and sautéed in a hot skillet, their juices caramelize and add an extra depth of flavor to classics like peach cobbler or for a cooked chutney alongside pork chops, sausage, or other grilled meats. Peaches cooked with sugar can be eaten over yogurt or oatmeal, their syrup reserved for cocktails, lemonade, or iced tea.
Peaches are a natural flavor companion to fresh goat’s cheese and herbs like mint, basil, and thyme. They hold up against strong aromatics, including shallots and ginger, and help balance out the bold flavors or anise seed and spicy chiles.
In both savory and sweet dishes, it may be necessary to balance the sometimes-cloying sweetness of a peach with acidic ingredients, like lemon juice, as well as a pinch of salt. Be sure to taste your peaches before cooking or baking. There are hundreds of peach varieties that range in sweetness, tartness, and texture.
Seek out freestone varieties for easier preparation. The flesh of freestone peaches will release easily from the pit, whereas clingstone versions will need to be cut from the pit. You won’t be able to tell if a peach is freestone or clingstone by looking at it, but generally clingstone ripen first, so they will be the first available at the market. If you are purchasing from a farm or small market, this information will be readily available.