If I’ve learned one thing picking fruit so far this season, it’s that if you complain to your co-workers who are working in the vegetable garden about having to eat too many peaches (to test for ripeness) they will not be sympathetic.
Aside from tasks like hitching the tractor (which is hard in a completely different way) picking peaches is probably the hardest thing I’ve done yet at North Star. Now, some of you may think that it’s just softness that determines if a peach is ripe. I’ve watched you squeezing all the peaches at the farmers’ market, trying to find the ripest. (You know who you are… I bet you’ve probably learned not to bother squeezing the peaches at the supermarket. You might try bouncing them off the floor, though!) For a few reasons, firmness alone is not how we determine ripeness in the orchard. For one, all your peaches would be dented – with dents that matched my fingerprints exactly.
OK, so color, then? Ripe peaches have a lovely red blush, right? Wrong again. Like firmness, color can be an indicator, but it can also fool you. The other day one of my coworkers happened up the peach row to bring me my water jug (which had apparently thrown itself off the trailer as I drove away on the tractor). It was her first time in between the rows of peaches this season, and she stopped a moment to look around. “Are these like 90% ripe?” she asked, studying the red-violet peaches hanging all around her. I told her that, no, I had actually completely finished picking that section. The trick with color is that it’s the undercolor you’re looking for – the color that develops behind that red blush. In other words, the background color that can range from cream to pale yellow to deep orange, depending on the variety. And the clincher is the color beneath that little stripe across the stem-end of the peach that is shaded by the branch – which of course you can’t see until after you’ve picked the peach.
But to complicate things even further, breeders have been working toward a peach with more and more blush and less and less undercolor. As Lisa explained a few weeks back in a North Star blog post, “In heirloom or old traditional varieties of peaches, the little bit of red blush they developed was a sign of ripeness. So, as people grew to equate ‘red’ with ‘ripe’ on a peach, fruit breeders did their darnedest to breed peaches that were as red as possible before ripening. To this end, we now have countless varieties of peaches that are practically all red, with little yellow (or white, in the case of white peaches) showing way before when they are truly ripe and ready to be picked.” Try staring at those for a few hours, trying to distinguish ripeness by color alone, and you’ll go a little cross-eyed.
Really, though, I’m working with a whole set of clues as to ripeness when picking peaches – firmness, color, size, degree of fuzziness, shape, and placement on the tree, all of which vary with variety. But the definitive factor is taste. Which means that I may be forced to take a bite (or two) out of a whole lot of peaches on a given picking day. Which, even if they’re still a little crunchy, is an occupational hazard that I’ve decided I can live with.
But you might still be wondering, along with many of our uninitiated farmers’ market customers: If your peaches are picked at the right time, then why are they still so hard? I like to think about it like M&Ms – “melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” right? (yeah, right!) Well, our peaches soften on your counter, not on the tree. When picking, we put so much effort into identifying those indicators of ripeness in order to make sure that the peaches have fully ripened (i.e. the sugars and flavor have fully developed) but they have not yet fully softened. This way, you get the peaches home in one piece (no fingerprints to speak of, mine or yours), and they’ll actually have a better texture when allowed to soften off the tree.
There’s a lot of science behind this ripening process – enzymes, metabolism, respiration, climacteric, non-climacteric, ethylene, starches converting to sugars… to be honest, it still befuddles me a bit, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it all. But the important thing is that, science aside, I still know what a good, ripe peach tastes like.
So, moving on to something special to do with those peaches once they’ve softened up for you…
If you want to go the traditional route, here’s what I’m convinced (with all due respect to the grandmas of the world out there) is the best peach cobbler recipe on the planet (Sweet Georgia Peach Cobbler), discovered in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few years back.
Or, for the less traditional route, grill them! I know this suggestion might raise a few eyebrows, but I have tried it, and it is fabulous. And, as one of the other market vendors gleefully announced the other week as she headed off with her white peaches, “I’m going to grill them. Because then you don’t have to make a pie!” It can be as easy as halving the peaches and throwing them on the grill until you see grill marks and smell caramelizing sugar, or you can go one step further and top them with vanilla ice cream or your favorite dessert sauce.