Nectarines are smooth, fuzz-free versions of their more popular cousin, the peach. These seasonal stone fruits grow on trees in warmer climates like parts of China, the southeastern U.S., and California. They appear July through September and present a firmer flesh that's great for the grill, chopped up in salads, or as an after-school snack. Find out more about these sweet items and why you should pick them over peaches the next time you're at the grocery store.
What Are Nectarines?
Nectarines are a smooth-fleshed stone fruit that are a close relative to the peach. In fact, nectarines are in the same family, Rosaceae, and are cultivars of peaches, possessing a recessive gene that gives them bald skin, firmer flesh, and a denser flavor. Both fruits have either clingstones or freestones, meaning the pits either stay close to the flesh of the fruit or fall out easily, making slicing less messy. Nectarines can be eaten raw, and since the peel isn't fuzzy, are often eaten out of hand with the center pit discarded (no peeling required). They tend to be slightly higher in price than peaches but comparable.
Nectarines are thought to have been domesticated in China approximately 4,000 years ago, about the same time peaches became an orchard staple. Botanists believe the nectarine came about through a genetic mutation that farmers coveted and then started planting. Because these plants can have specific branches that carry the gene anomaly, nectarines can grow directly from peach trees.
How to Use Nectarines
Nectarines do not need to be cooked or peeled to be enjoyed. A washed fruit can simply be eaten as is, either bitten into like an apple or sliced. The large inner pit is not edible and should be discarded. Most prefer to eat nectarines ripe—they are ready when the flesh yields slightly when pressed and the peel in the stem cavity is no longer green.
Munching on a ripe, raw nectarine is one of the joys of eating summer fruit, though there are plenty of other things to do with this orange orb of juicy sweetness. For starters, try slicing them in half, removing the pit, and placing them directly on the hot grill. You can do this with peaches too, but nectarines prove firmer and hold up better to the heat while they caramelize the sticky sugars. Serve them warm and steaming with a scoop of ice cream, drizzled with honey and balsamic if desired.
As with other stone fruits, nectarines create wonderful jams and jellies and go great in baked applications such as hearty pies, chunky cobblers, and delicate tarts. But it's not just the dessert menu that benefits from nectarines—try this fruit in savory dishes as well. Try chopping and mixing with jalapeños for a sweet and spicy salsa, pair with grilled pork chops, or turn the fruit into an umami-rich chutney.
What Do Nectarines Taste Like?
If you have ever sucked the supple flesh of a peach and enjoyed the deep, round, and sugary flavors that drip from the fruit, then you have a good idea of what nectarines taste like. The biggest difference is texture and how it feels in your mouth. While enjoying the sunny sweetness of nectarines, you won't have the furry skin to contend with, which some people find off-putting. Nectarines also have denser meat that imparts a slight spice to help even out the natural sugars. This nuance is why the fruit goes great in both desserts and main courses.
Nectarines can be successfully used in a surprisingly wide range of dishes. Go sweet with pies, tarts, cobblers, and jams, or go savory with salads and grilled and stewed dishes.
Where to Buy Nectarines
Nectarines tend to be more susceptible to disease than their peach cousins which is why you don't see them in quite the abundance. There's also a specific season for the fruit, and you can check your local grocery store or farmers' market from July to mid-September to see if they have them in stock. Usually, nectarines will be sold by the pound and located right next to the peaches.
When choosing this fruit, look for dark orange orbs that don't have brown or green spots. They should be firm to the touch with no soft spots and have a nice, fruity smell by the stem. If the nectarines don't have an aroma, the fruit isn't ripe, but you can still buy them and let them mature at home on the counter or in a paper bag for a couple of days.
Nectarine trees can be grown at home in the proper climates, either in the ground or in large fruit tree planters. Newer varieties are self-fruiting, so you can successfully grow a single tree and harvest fruit.
Keep ripe nectarines on the counter in a cool, dry place for a few days. They will ripen more as time goes on, so don't keep your nectarines too long, since overripe stone fruit becomes mushy. You can also place the ripe fruit in the fridge to prolong its life, but nectarines taste best at room temperature. Sliced fruit should always be kept in the fridge in a sealed container, or you can freeze and store them in freezer bags or ice-proof containers for later use in baked goods or smoothies.
Nutrition and Benefits
Nectarines have many good-for-you qualities starting with fiber and vitamin C. This fruit also notably contains vitamins A and B3, copper, potassium, and magnesium. It's way better to munch on a sweet, ripe nectarine for dessert than a piece of chocolate cake, and you'll get nutrients out of the deal as well.
This cultivar of peach has many variations starting with the seed, be that freestone or clingstone. Next comes the color options, whose flesh range from white to light yellow to bright golden orange. Between peaches and nectarines, there are over 4,000 varieties, with more being discovered and created every year. Some popular types of nectarines include Sunglo, Fantasia, Redgold, and Zephyr. Chances are you won't find nectarines under these monikers in standard grocery stores—usually they just say "nectarine," but you can find different types at farmers markets and some specialty shops that feature unique and in-season fruit.