“How to pick a peach” depends upon who’s picking it: the commercial farmer, the grocery store shopper, the local small farmer, and the farmers’ market shopper. Let’s take a look at all of them!
The Commercial Farmer: By this, I mean the big mega orchard grower (growing hundreds or even thousands of acres of peach trees!), who wholesales most, if not all of their production. Typically, this grower will pick on a calendar schedule, regardless how ripe or not-ripe the peaches are. Their goal is to pick a peach which is hard enough to withstand not only shipping over long distances (across country or into a different country altogether) but also can hold up to bouncing around in trucks, ships, and planes for several weeks to a month before it is selected by a customer (usually at a grocery store). To make things easier for this grower, fruit breeders have bred for more and more red skin color on peaches. 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 darndest 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. This suits the big mega peach farmer quite well, so he picks when the red color is there and ships them off.
The Grocery Store Shopper: This may have been you at one point or another (it was certainly me many years ago!). You go into a grocery store where they have, piled in tall pyramids of red color, heaps of lovely-looking peaches. Perhaps they’re labeled tree-ripened or local. Perhaps they’re just labeled with a price. Regardless, they look so lovely you just have to take some home. The question next is how to get those rock-hard beauties to soften up? This is where the “ripen in a paper bag” notion came in. As commercial (ie. the aforementioned red-before-they’re-ready) peaches came to the forefront, it became obvious that it was difficult to get the danged things to soften up at home. Fruit gives off ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. So, by placing the peaches in a paper bag, the notion is the gases will be trapped in the bag and hasten ripening. Problem is, when peaches are picked way-too-early, they essentially die and cannot give off ethylene in the first place. Additionally, since they’ve been shipped and stored in refrigerators for weeks-on-end, any potential flavor components are essentially shot. So, oftentimes those grocery store peaches end up either never softening up properly or they’re mealy or end up moldy before they are eatable. As I always say, just as with grocery store tomatoes…just say NO to grocery store peaches! There’s no point in wasting your money if you can’t tell how fresh they are.
The Local Small Farmer: A small farmer (like us!) who sells all (or most, depending on the farm) of their peaches directly to the customer, has a lot more work to do, actually, than the big mega-farmer, in order to pick peaches. We want to make sure the peaches are ripe enough that they’ll develop the proper juicy texture and luscious flavors. But in order to do this, we can’t just pick based on red color, because we have lots of varieties, and some of them are quite old and came along before the “red color craze”. We have to look at the ‘undercolor’ of the peach, which can vary from white to brilliant orange depending on the variety. We also have to do some taste-testing (a nice perk of growing fruit, although there really can be too much of a good thing sometimes!). Each and every variety is different in appearance, ripening time, color and undercolor, and flavor, so picking at the optimal time can take several years of learning, evaluating, and note-taking. We also like to make sure that peaches don’t end up already bruised at the farmers’ market or CSA share, so we have to figure out when the optimal time is to pick them that they only need two or three days of softening time they’re perfectly juicy and delicious. We have to ‘spot pick’ each tree about 3 times, picking the peaches as they mature instead of all at once. And then we have to get them into the hands of the people who will eat them in fairly short order. Whew!
The Farmers’ Market Shopper: When you shop at a farmers’ market for a peach (remember, you’ve said NO to grocery store peaches!), usually all you need to do is decide which peach to get. If you are buying from a reputable orchardist, the hard part (as mentioned above) has been done for you. Your job is to decide: white or yellow? (whites tend to be sweeter; yellows tend to be ‘peachier’) Peach or nectarine? (nectarines are essentially peaches without fuzz…so give them a try – but not from the grocery store!), large or small fruits (although size doesn’t necessarily matter. Some varieties are genetically smaller and some are larger). If there are several varieties available for sale…which to choose? Most small growers raise many kinds of peaches. Each variety ripens over 7 to 10 days and then the next variety comes into rotation. While many growers just lump them altogether as ‘peaches’, some (like us) like to keep each variety separate and named. Most peaches taste very similar (which is why many growers just lump them together), but sometimes there are standout varieties. So, which to choose? Just ask which one we like the best on a given day. You might often get a “well, they’re all pretty much the same and yummy”, but some weeks there will be a definite favorite. Then, just take them home and set them on the counter for a day or two or three (please…NOT in a bag!). Give them the ‘squeeze’ test. When soft to your liking, grab a napkin and enjoy!