a test kitchen dossier
An apple is an excellent thing—until you’ve tried a peach.
— George du Maurier
Foodstuff: Peach (Prunus persica)
Though the word underwent quite a few permutations before reaching modern English, “peach” is derived from the Latin malum Persicum which in turn comes from the Greek Persikon malon, both meaning “Persian apple.” Most of the slang uses of “peach” date from the early 1900s.
Area of Origin
These Persian apples aren’t really Persian, as peaches originally come from China.
The peach tree, surprisingly, is a member of the rose family bearing flowers in early Spring and then fruit in Summer, the varieties of which are outlined below. Peaches have one big seed (the pit) that has a ridged, hard wood shell. The delectably edible part is the yellow or white flesh that grows around the pit, and when ripe it is dribble-down-the-chin juicy. The skin of a peach is entirely edible, and can range from just barely soft to quite fuzzy. The best peach is tree-ripened and fragrant, and yields to a firm touch — don’t settle for less.
Like many of our favorite main ingredients, peaches have a pretty interesting geographic history. First cultivated in China around 4000 years ago, they eventually made it to Persia (now Iran) and the Mediterranean via the Silk Road trading routes. From there the Greeks and then the Romans spread the joy of peaches to Europe, and the “Persian apple” misnomer was born. Peaches made it to the western hemisphere by the 17th century on Spanish and Portuguese ships, and today two-thirds of U.S. states grow peaches. California and South Carolina grow the largest crops; Georgia, the famous Peach State, actually comes in third in continental peach production.
The pleasant peach plays some important non-gastronomic roles, too, and is actually suspected of being the real “forbidden fruit” referred to in the Old Testament. Ancient Egyptians used peaches as offerings to beseech tranquility and peace from their gods, and in Chinese Taoist illustrations, old men appear with their fingers stuck in fuzzy peaches, a symbol of long life. Chinese lore also describes the peach fruit as the key ingredient in an elixir for immortality, and often appears in sexual mysticism. The peach’s sexy reputation followed to the West where Romans believed it to be Venus’ prized fruit — and an aphrodisiac.
Stone fruits, including peaches, have been used in other therapeutic ways as well: Apricots and peaches were used to fight cancer and other tumors beginning over two thousand years ago. Peach bark has been used to coax delayed puberty, to relieve inflammation and infection, and as a respiratory decongestant as well. Ironically, peaches are also used to flavor cigarettes in some countries. In the end, a peach doesn’t have very many enemies: It’s delicious, sexy and might help you kick a persistent cough — not bad for a fruit.
Varieties of Peaches
As mentioned above, peaches can be divided along two lines: color and clinginess. Yellow peaches, which are most popular in the U.S. and Europe, are sweet and a little bit tangy. White peaches, more common in China but available almost everywhere, are almost entirely sweet. In addition to being distinguished by color — yellow and white peaches actually taste and smell quite different — peaches are divided into freestones and clingstones. Clingstone peaches have flesh that sticks to the pit; they are typically used for canning. Freestones are mostly sold and eaten fresh. The peach fruit is a drupe, or stone fruit, along with plums, apricots, and cherries.
Notice nectarines missing from the list? Though we’re used to seeing them in different sections of the market, nectarines are actually the same species as peaches — minus the fuzz. Most peach trees grow some nectarines and vice versa.
Peaches are best when they are tree-ripened, meaning they aren’t picked until they’re ripe and ready. Sadly, the bulk of peaches sold in the U.S. are picked when they are still unripe, then they sit in boxes until they’re soft and yellow enough to sell. The process strips the peaches of their juiciness and texture, so try to hold out for tree ripened fruit if possible. Peaches can be found everywhere in Summer: supermarkets, organic grocers, greenmarkets, roadside stands and some farms where you can pick your own — and maybe even eat a few while you’re at it.
Cooking with & Storing Peaches
Depending on how ripe a peach is when you buy it, it can last up to a few days, but peaches do not keep well. The best flavor comes from peaches the day they are picked or purchased. If they do happen to be under-ripe, you can put them in a brown paper bag for a day or two until they ripen a bit more.
Peaches can be eaten raw or cooked, with the skin on or off; the pit is not edible. (Note that canned peaches (clingstone) are generally skin-free). And while peaches are delicious when fresh, they are also excellent when grilled or baked, and can be incorporated into almost any phase of a meal.
Though a ripened, juicy peach is heavenly on its own, it does pair well with traditional accompaniments like cream and this month’s Indulgence, Ginger. Peaches also work well with grilled meats, with roast duck or pork chops, and of course in dessert dishes across the spectrum.
The temptation to go all-dessert this month was a difficult one to overcome, but we did want to head into the savory realm as well. And yes, peaches are just fine on their own, fresh from the tree, but we wanted to get a little bit creative. As a result you’ll find something in our recipes for just about every course, from grilling sauce to grilled peaches coated in coconut milk and cinnamon.
Dossier by Aviva J. Gilbert