The Skinny on... Peaches, Plums and Nectarines

Sweet, colorful and delicately perfumed, stone fruits are some of the season's most prized produce.
SkinnyOnStoneFruitThe Skinny On
Peaches, nectarines and plums may well be the pinnacle of summer fruit: sweet, juicy and utterly irresistible. They're all “stone fruits”— that is, these fruits have sweet flesh surrounding a hard, rather large pit (or “stone”). Here’s how to get the best of the season’s stone fruits.

1. Consider the pits:
  • Free-stone peaches (that is, the flesh easily comes free from the pit)are sturdier and thus better for savory dishes like a quick sauté with chicken breasts, for the grill (a lightly browned peach half is an excellent side dish) or even for pickling.
  • Cling peaches (that is, the flesh adheres stubbornly to the pit) were traditionally considered sweeter — and thus were more popular. Modern super-sweet varietals of free-stone peaches make this distinction almost meaningless. Still, cling peaches have a softer and more luxurious texture, making them a great (if messy) choice for pies, jams, cobblers and crisps.
2. Look at the flesh:
  • Yellow-fleshed fruits are usually quite juicy and very fragrant.
  • White-fleshed fruits are less acidic and thus sweeter. White-fleshed peaches also bruise easily; transporting them can be difficult, a problem reflected in their higher price.

Directly related to peaches, they are a subset with a smooth skin (rather than that familiar fuzz).
  • There are currently over 150 varieties of nectarines.
  • Like peaches, they are available in cling or free-stone varieties.
  • There are white- and yellow-fleshed versions, though most have yellow to pale orange flesh with splotches of red or pink.
  • Nectarines become softer and juicier after they're picked — but they will not become sweeter or more flavorful.
Picking the best peaches and nectarines
Your nose knows. Smell peaches and nectarines before you buy them. If they don't smell sweet and aromatic, they probably won't taste sweet and aromatic.

The red blush of a peach or nectarine doesn't tell you if the fruit is ripe. Look at the background color. It should be uniform, either golden or pale cream, with absolutely no green blush or tinge.

Yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines should be soft but not mushy in any way. White-fleshed peaches and nectarines can be firmer because the sugar content is higher.

Although there are fewer specific varieties of plums than of peaches and nectarines, there’s more diversity among the varieties: from extremely sweet to moderately tart; from soft-fleshed to quite firm, from round to tapered ovals, from red to yellow to blue to black and all the colors in-between. There are two basic categories:
European-style Plums
  • Free-stone
  • Always blue or purple
  • Small and firm
  • Less juice but more natural sugar
  • Often dried into prunes
Japanese-style Plums
  • Clings, the flesh sticks to the pits
  • Skin: light yellow to blackish red
  • Fairly spherical
  • Very juicy (they do not dry well)
  • Best for eating or canning
Picking the best plums
Plums should be firm (not hard) with a little give but certainly no soft spots. The skin itself should be smooth and firm, never wrinkled (indicating the fruit has passed its prime).

Ripening at home
A peach or nectarine that is rock-hard or green will never ripen at home. Avoid these at all costs unless you intend to make spiced or pickled peaches.Plums should also be selected and eaten at the peak of their freshness.However, you can ripen those plums, peaches or nectarines that are close to perfection by sealing them in a bag with a banana or an apple for a day or two at room temperature. The banana or apple gives off ethylene, a gas that aids in ripening stone fruits. The stone fruits will get softer and juicier — but in general, not sweeter.
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