This article was published in the August/September 2009 Wedge newsletter. The following information may be outdated.

Ask Professor Produce

Mealy peaches are one of life's smaller disappointments, to be sure, but oh, to bite into a mealy peach is to know the smarting pain of expectations unfulfilled. You've done everything right—the peach is pretty, it is soft, it is ripe—but as the camera slides into slow motion, and your teeth approach the peach and pierce through its fuzzy skin, even your very tooth knows upon contact that something is horribly wrong, yes, horribly wrong. Instead of a rush of sweet peach juice you are greeted with a soft, thick and clinging substance that mocks you with its peach flavor as you search for the nearest garbage can in which to spit it. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a soul so brave as to actually swallow that mouthful of disappointment.

Also known as "woolly peaches," mealy peaches are otherwise delicious peaches that have been refrigerated or chilled before they were fully ripe. Sometimes this is the consumer's fault—so hear ye, hear ye, ye chilled-fruit lovers—be it now known, if you put peaches, tomatoes, pears and such in the refrigerator before they're fully ripe they run the risk of ending up mealy and unsatisfying. When handling stone fruits (including peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots, but not cherries) you should ripen them on your counter before you put them in the fridge. A peach and a fridge should have a relationship based solely on crisis—if you have too many ripe peaches and not enough mouths to feed them to, you can refrigerate a ripe peach for a day or so and it might not turn mealy. But it also might. Still, if it's very ripe, it's better to put it in the fridge than to let it rot on the counter, if such is the strange, sad choice you find yourself having to make.

Now the other part is trickier—how to spot a mealy peach in the store and avoid taking it home in the first place. This is more important, really, because the most common producer of a mealy peach is poor handling somewhere along the line from tree to table. The only person who hates a mealy peach more than you is the employee at the store who unwittingly sold you the mealy peach. Take it from me because I have been on both sides of that equation. A produce department would never refrigerate a peach—so usually the damage is done on a truck somewhere in between. When we receive crates of peaches, thanks to avid quality control taste testers like myself (ahem), we sample and return peaches that are mealy immediately. Sometimes cases slip through the cracks, as when we receive unripe peaches and sell them without being able to sample first. When we accidentally sell these peaches to you, our customers, and learn about it later, we suffer from a bevy of disorders including but not limited to nightmares, headaches, low self-esteem, and unshakable guilt. So you can see, it's quite worse than a mouthful of wool. Really.

There are some ways to tell a mealy peach, though it helps to have lots of experience touching peaches. For one, if you hold and gently squeeze a regular peach, it will resist your pressure (unless you're poking hard and damaging the fruit—don't do that). If it is mealy however, the peach will tend to give way to pressure quickly and remain indented. Sometimes you can spot a mealy peach if the peach has a gray or green cast to it, or in any other way fails to appear vibrant and lively looking. There is a certain sad immaturity about a mealy peach; it never quite reaches that pinnacle of ripeness wherein it glows with succulent peachy promise. When in doubt, you should always ask your produce staff about the various qualities of stone fruit on our shelves. Sometimes, even if the peaches are good, you might be happier with a nectarine that is great; but you won't know unless you ask.

The main thing you need to pay attention to during this season, by my way of thinking, is the same in peaches as it is in real estate: location, location, location. The closer to Minnesota the peach was grown, the much better your odds of satisfaction are. Colorado and Michigan peaches are a sure bet, as little to no refrigeration is necessary to bring these peaches straight to our doors. If you love traditional peach flavor, a juicy explosive texture, and heady scent, you will probably favor the peaches we get from Barnard Farms of Benzie County, Michigan. If you are looking for rich, sink-your-teeth-in texture, sweetness, and a minimum of fuzz on the skin, you will love Colorado peaches. Look for ones from Mountain Lion Orchards— they are supreme. Peach season is at its peak in mid-to-late August.

Good luck, and remember: as with so many of life's minor disappointments, there's never a mealy peach so bad you can't shake yourself off, clean yourself up, and get back out there to the grocery store and try again. Peach season waits for no one!