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A guide to stone fruit: How to choose, ripen, store and cook with it

Clockwise from top left: Nectarines, Rainier cherries, white peaches, apricots, black plums, Saturn/donut peaches, red plums, (more) apricots, black plums and sweet cherries. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Stone fruit is my favorite part of summer, after the warm weather and extended hours of daylight.

So called for the singular pit or stone at the center — which houses a seed inside — stone fruit, also known as drupes, are generally in season late May through early October in the United States. Some of the most common drupes include peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots and cherries, but olives, mangoes and pecans also fall under this category. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of many of these fruits — not to mention the various hybrids such as plumcots, apriums and pluots — that come in many shades, sizes and flavors.

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Here’s what you need to know about some of the most popular types of stone fruit.

Types of stone fruit

Peaches. These are what I consider the standard-bearer when it comes to stone fruit in the U. S. — there’s nothing better than biting into a ripe peach and letting the juice drip down your chin on a warm, sunny day. The fruit is generally known for its balance of tart acidity and sweetness and is either a deep golden yellow or creamy white. Yellow peaches tend to have higher acidity; white peaches are milder and often slightly sweeter, but they’re generally not recommended for cooking as they can get mushy and fall apart. There are also flat versions of the fruit called Donut or Saturn peaches. Because of their size, they are usually best for eating out of hand as they would take more effort to prepare compared to traditional round peaches. When it comes to taste, donut peaches are also typically sweeter and milder than round ones.

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Nectarines. While peaches tend to get most of the hype during stone fruit season, don’t sleep on nectarines. The two stone fruits are very similar and relatively interchangeable in uses, but nectarines are often firmer, sweeter and juicier than peaches. One of the key differences between the two is that nectarines are smooth-skinned compared to the characteristic fuzz of peaches, which is a boon for anyone unsettled by eating furry fruit.

Make the recipe: Nectarine Salad With Warm Bacon and Nectarine Dressing

Plums. There are different types of each of the stone fruit included in this list, but plums are perhaps the most varied. Their size can range from as small as a cherry to as large as a baseball; they come in a variety of colors, including deep purple/nearly black, red, yellow and green; and they exist all along the sweet-tart spectrum. (The one I’m eating for inspiration as I write this article is definitely on the astringent end of the range.) They have smooth skin and the whitish layer sometimes found atop it is called the “bloom” and helps protect the fruit.

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Apricots. The vast majority of apricots grown domestically are from California, and these yellow fruits have a velvety skin that isn’t quite smooth, but isn’t as fuzzy as that of a peach. Compared to other stone fruit, apricots tend to be firmer when ripe and won’t get as juicy. As such, apricots aren’t usually interchangeable with peaches or nectarines in recipes because of the difference in water content.

Cherries. These diminutive, often heart-shaped stone fruits come in shades of red and yellow and can be divided into two categories: sweet or tart. Sweet cherries, such as Bing and Rainier, are great eaten out of hand or can be baked into pies and clafoutis, cooked down into jam or simmered into a sauce. Perhaps the most popular variety of tart or sour cherry is Montmorency, and as the category’s name implies, you don’t really want to pop them into your mouth as a snack. They’re also known as pie cherries, because they’re still great for mixing with sugar and baking.

Freestone versus clingstone

While I’ve heard this categorization mostly applied to peaches, it applies to other stone fruit as well. Freestone and clingstone reference how much the flesh of the fruit adheres to its pit. As I’m sure you can deduce, freestone implies a looser connection compared to clingstone, and though the pit inside freestone fruits might not just fall out when you cut it open, it will be much easier to remove than in clingstone fruits. (Most of the fruit available in grocery stores is freestone.) Aside from the pitting process, the difference between the two is that clingstone fruits are juicier and slightly sweeter, making them ideal for canning and preserving.

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Selection, ripening and storage

The skin on stone fruit should be smooth and plump — hence the peach emoji’s double-meaning on social media — and they should feel hefty for their size. Wrinkled skin signifies older fruit that should be consumed immediately. For cherries, it’s best to buy fruit with the stems still attached as they will keep longer.

You can tell if most stone fruit is ripe if there is a little give when you press gently near the stem. (No, this does not give you clearance to start squeezing all of the fruit on sale at the grocery store or farmers market. It’s nice to buy fruits at different stages so you can enjoy them for an extended period of time instead of all at once.) For peaches in particular, the nose knows — they will have that unmistakable floral, sweet scent the fruit is known for when ready to consume. Sweet cherries will be firm when ripe, whereas sour cherries will be slightly soft.

How to store peaches, corn, melons and more summer produce

Cherries should always be stored unwashed in a breathable produce bag in the refrigerator. Other stone fruits should be kept, also unwashed, either in a paper bag or in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel with another towel on top at room temperature until ripe. If going with the paper bag method, you can throw in another ethylene producing fruit, such as an apple, to help speed up the ripening process. (It’s important to note that ripening will only improve the softness and juiciness of the fruit, and won’t actually make them sweeter.) Once ripe, store the fruit in the crisper drawer of your fridge, preferably in a breathable produce bag if available.

Lastly, you can peel stone fruit if you want before cooking and baking, but it’s not necessary. If you find the skins difficult to remove, drop the fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, plunge in an ice bath and then they should be more easy to disrobe.

Whether raw or cooked, peeled or not, stone fruit are the cherry on top of a wonderful summer produce season.

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