The fruit we call nectarines is virtually identical to the fruit we call peaches, except for one noticeable feature. The skin of most peaches contains fuzz, while the skin of nectarines is smooth. The same mutation responsible for the fruit's smooth skin is also responsible for the spicier taste and slightly smaller size. Both grow from the same parent peach trees, which have been known to produce examples of both fruits at the same time. Essentially, there are no nectarine trees, only peach trees with a genetic mutation.
Nectarines can be traced back to ancient China, where they and peaches were very symbolic and revered fruits. This fruit required even more diligence to grow, since they were more vulnerable to mold and peach rot. As trade expanded between China and the West, nectarines became even more popular. European manuscripts dating to 1616 offer the first references to them in the Western world. One setback to successful European cultivation of nectarines and peaches was the extremes of hot and cold weather necessary for fruit pollination.
Because nectarines are the result of genetic mutation, growers must rely on transplanted strains of peach trees known to produce them. Certain peach trees are identified as having at least one recessive nectarine gene, so they are often mated with other strains likely to contain recessive genes. Only a successful pairing of two recessive genes will guarantee a yield of the fruit.
Nectarines are similar to peaches when it comes to their pits. Some contain freestone pits, while others are considered clinging. Freestone pits, which are not as convoluted as peach pits, can be removed from the fruit easily. Cling-style pits, on the other hand, are deeply embedded in the flesh and must be removed mechanically. Some consider nectarines to be more flavorful than peaches, and much easier to eat. They do have a spicier quality than peaches, and the flesh is generally firmer.
This fruit provides an excellent amount of vitamin A and a significant amount of vitamin C. Experts suggest placing ripening nectarines into a loosely folded paper bag at room temperature, along with an unripe banana. The fruit should reach its maximum ripeness after a few days. When buying the fruit, look for signs of bruising or mold. Avoid buying nectarines with any green patches — they may not ripen before spoiling.
Peeling nectarines is similar to peeling raw tomatoes. Carve a small X on one end of the fruit and place in a pan of boiling water for a few seconds. Immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water and peel when cool.