Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate. Just so seasonal peaches. The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether. But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.
Peaches are one of my favorite fruits. Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious. I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it. I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer. Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe. I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious. When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste. Into the compost they go. How did I get fooled again?
The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree. And not always those. Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts. We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue. Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control. You make your own luck, my dad used to say. God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past. Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true. If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it. A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight. Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches. But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential. Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest. Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.
If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.
Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground. If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off. Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness. A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach. If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe. When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch. This should just give under the finger. If it is still firm-not ripe. If it yields, give the peach a twist. If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet. It’s telling you to wait another day. Accept it.
There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first. Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over. They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact. They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit. If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe. A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits. Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.
Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave. At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day. Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat. It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.
All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps. Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin. This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water. One minute. Time it. Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam. Less and the skins won’t slip off. You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath. If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking. See the difference in the picture below.
Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them. If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags. This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare. Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer. To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it. Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing. When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first. I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.
Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment. While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree. I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.
If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair. Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area. Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try. Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits. If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later. Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.
If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.