You probably don’t need to be sold on the advantages of purchasing local produce. Picked at an almost-ripe stage and immediately transported to a farmers’ market, fresh, regional peaches can be purchased within a day or two of harvest, unlike store bought peaches, which are picked, packed in crates, and shipped hundreds of miles only to sit for days and days in the bin at the grocery store. Visit your favorite farmers’ market throughout the season and get to know the farmers; they can tell you all about their peaches, if they are clingstone, freestone, or semifreestone, whether or not they are ready to eat, and also help you pick out the best fruit for your needs. If you want to bake a fresh peach cobbler that very day or plan to put up peach preserves later in the week, the farmer can teach you to look at the varying degrees of ripeness in order to buy the right peach.
Don’t be fooled by a pink, rosy blush on a peach, for that is actually not a sign of ripeness. Look for the yellow undertone, or “ground color,” on the fruit’s skin. Ripe peaches will have a warm, creamy yellow or yellow-orange undertone. Just make sure there are no hints of green on the peach, which is a sign that the peach was picked too early. Once you get peaches home, store them in a single layer at room temperature with the stem side down. If peaches ripen before you are ready to use them, store them in the refrigerator for one or two more days. You have waited too late once wrinkles form on the skin, however, for that is a sign they are starting to dry out.
How to tell if your peach is ready to eat? This sweet and juicy fruit gets even better as it ripens. To determine the degree of ripeness, gently squeeze the tip or shoulder (where the stem was) - if it gives a little, it's ripe and ready to eat. If the peach is still firm, either check it after another day, dice it for salads and salsas, or go ahead and eat it if you like crunchy peaches.
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You will likely find a plethora of peach varieties at the farmers’ market, and most of them will fall into these three categories. Your particular need – baking, pickling, pure enjoyment – and how early or late it is in the season, will determine the best peach for the job.
An early-season peach, these smaller, sweeter peaches have flesh that clings to the pit. Choose them for eating out of hand, canning, or preserving.
Usually found late in the season, freestones are slightly larger and juicier with pits that separate easily from the flesh. Almost all fresh peaches sold in grocery stores are freestones. Choose them for pickling, grilling, and tossing in fruit salads.
This early-season, lesser-known type has a pit that clings to the flesh until the peach is ripe. It’s great for eating out of hand, baking, pickling, and freezing.
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A last word on choosing peaches: Check the fruit for bruises or broken skin. Pick only whole, unblemished specimens. Use your nose, as well, since peaches should have a mild scent. A strong fragrant scent is a sure sign of over-ripeness.