Sweeter than its first cousin, the peach, and darker fleshed (hence richer in beta-carotene), nectarines are a sweet, juicy treat that is virtually fat free and a good supply of vitamin C and fibre. Many people mistakenly think nectarines are simply peaches without fuzz, an understandable association, given that the two fruits are nearly alike in size, texture, and colour. Nectarines, however, are generally sweeter than peaches. Botanically, the nectarine is classified as a subspecies of the peach, but it is more accurate to describe each fruit as a genetic variant of the other.

Despite their similarity, nectarines (their name is probably derived from nektar, the Greek word for "drink of the gods") have been distinguished from peaches and other pitted fruits for hundreds of years. Today's modern cross breeding techniques, in which nectarine varieties are crossed with one another as well as with peaches, have yielded larger, peachlike nectarines with gold and crimson skin and yellow flesh.

Select bright, well-rounded nectarines with shades of deep yellow under a red blush. Ripe fruit should yield to gentle pressure, particularly along the seam, and it should have a sweet fragrance. Brightly coloured fruits that are firm or moderately hard will "ripen" (not get sweeter, but juicier and softer) within two or three days at room temperature. Avoid fruits that are rock hard or greenish, signs that the fruit was picked too soon and will not ripen properly. Reject fruits that are mushy or have shriveled skins, both signs of decay. Sometimes the skin of a nectarine may look stained, as though the blush has spread out in an irregular pattern under the skin, but this doesn't affect taste or texture. Moreover, a rosy blush doesn't indicate the degree of ripeness, but is simply a characteristic of the variety.

Allow nectarines to reach peak eating condition by storing them for two or three days at room temperature in a loosely closed paper bag, away from sunlight. Once the fruit gives slightly to gentle pressure, it's ready to eat. You can keep it fresh for another three to five days by storing it in the refrigerator.

Before eating a nectarine whole, wash the fruit under cold running water; if refrigerated, let it warm to room temperature for optimum flavour. Since the flesh of a fresh nectarine darkens when exposed to air, don't slice it until you are ready to use the fruit. You can preserve its colour temporarily by dipping the slices in a cup of water with a tablespoon of lemon juice, or by simply tossing them with lemon juice.

Nectarines do not need to be peeled before eating. However, if you want to peel them, blanch them first by dropping them into boiling water for a minute, then cooling them in ice water; the skins will slip off easily. Rub the peeled fruits with lemon juice to keep them from darkening. Cooking softens nectarines and enhances their sweetness. It can also salvage slightly underripe fruit.