August is a month of change in the produce business when many of the fruits we have been enjoying all summer start to wane and others (that have been growing in the warm summer sun) really start to hit their stride. For peaches and nectarines, August also brings a change in the characteristics of the varieties harvested. These changes affect how you should select, store and eat these fruits. The differences are small but important.
By late July most growing areas for peaches and nectarines have finished with cling varieties. “Cling” is a variety designation that literally means the flesh of the peach clings to the stone (the hard seed or pit in the center of the fruit). Varieties harvested in the later summer months are known as “freestone” varieties, where the flesh of the peach separates from the stone as the fruit ripens.
Both types are excellent in their own right but selection and ripening characteristics change in some very important ways. Early season cling fruit is best when eaten soft, about same stage of softness as a ripe avocado. Later summer freestone varieties are best eaten firmer — allowing them to get as soft as the early varieties can sometimes result in fruit with a mushy texture.
Nora and Mike Naylor — Central Valley California Growers
When selecting fruit, color is a very reliable indicator of how ripe the fruit is. Both cling and freestone varieties have varying degrees of blush (the red shading), which is largely determined by variety and the position of the fruit on the tree. The important color though is yellow — specifically if the fruit is uniformly so. I will look carefully for yellow at the stem side of the fruit since this is generally the last place where the fruit goes from an immature green to yellow.
David Mas Masumoto — Central Valley California Grower
Eating freestone fruit is easier in some respects, but also comes with a danger you should be mindful of. Because the flesh separates easily from the stone it is much easier to prepare for serving but there is a condition more common in freestone varieties called “split pit” — this is where the hard shell surrounding the seed will sometimes crack and pieces will remain with the flesh. You should always examine the stone to make sure there are no pieces missing or, if the stone is split, to make sure you have removed all of it from the flesh of the fruit. Stone fragments are very hard and can crack a tooth.
Storage temperature is also extremely important with all varieties of stone fruit. It’s best to store all stone fruit at room temperature and you should be careful to buy only what you need over a few days. Most home refrigerators run between 35 and 39°F, which is not ideal for storing stone fruit. Fruit stored at this temperature will get mealy and can turn black on the inside.
Brent Smittcamp (with son Jack) Wawona farm — Central Valley California
Despite the pitfalls (pun intended) late summer stone fruit is often the very best of the season. I look forward to my favorite variety coming soon (Elberta), which we will pick ourselves off of the two trees our office has adopted in the central valley near Fresno. Some summer fruits are past their peak and we will be saying goodbye to them soon until next season. But peaches and nectarines are not done just yet. There is still a lot of summer left.
Fresh picked Elbertas- yum!