It’s been a few weeks since I had my last farmers market peach, and the transition always feels like a bit of a bummer. But my disappointment is lessened knowing pear season is here. While buying any type of pears I could get my hands on for the photo at right, I sampled my first Seckel pears of the year. Bliss! Peach who?
As fantastic as pears can be, they sometimes play second fiddle to their relations, apples. Why?
“Pears are difficult,” says Emily Zaas, who runs Maryland’s Black Rock Orchard with her husband, David Hochheimer, “but they are so enjoyable because of the variety.”
They’re hard to grow, which for buyers can mean less access, or access to fewer varieties. Moreover, once you buy them, it takes a little more effort to figure out when they’re ready to eat.
Don’t let uncertainty stop you from loving on this quintessential fall fruit. Here’s what you need to know:
Pears come in a variety of colors and gradients, which don’t really tell you much beyond what type they are. The colors don’t indicate what’s going on inside, other than the Bartlett, which I’ll get to . Purchase pears that are fragrant and free of cuts or other blemishes that might cause them to rot. Russeting, or brown rough patches, is perfectly normal and fine to eat. Pear season runs from late summer into December or January, although they’re typically available year-round at supermarkets.
In “Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book,” the author gives a sobering assessment: “A ripe pear gives very slightly round the stem, but should be in no way squashy. All this provides problems for the shopkeeper and supplier. The result is that most people have never eaten a decent pear in their lives.”
Even if you don’t subscribe to that brand of bluntness, it is true that getting a perfectly ripe pear requires some know-how. USA Pears, a website run by a group representing growers in the Northwest, says pears are one of the few types of fruits that don’t ripen on the tree. (Asian pears, however, do ripen on the tree.) That, in combination with the fact that riper pears are easily damaged, means many of the pears you find at the grocery store are not quite ready to be eaten.
But how to ensure your pear is ripe? Give it the old squeeze test, applying gentle pressure to the neck with your thumb. The pear is ready if it yields there; firm Boscs and Concordes won’t give quite as much as other types. USA Pears notes that pears ripen from the inside out, and the neck is closest to the center. If you checked the fatter part of the pear, by the time it was soft, the inside would be overripe. If you have Bartletts with green skin, they will lighten to yellow as they ripen.
Once your pears have ripened at room temperature, store them in the refrigerator. At that point, Zaas says, they can last as long as a few weeks. You can also store unripe pears in the refrigerator and then bring them back out when you’re ready to ripen them.
There’s not a whole lot that’s complicated here. As with all fruit, wash and scrub under cold, running water and then dry. If you’re peeling, you can use a paring knife, but a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler is good for removing a thinner layer, says Rolce Payne in “Cooking With Fruit.” She suggests going down the pear from stem to blossom end. To core, a dedicated corer can do the trick; so can a melon baller. When you want to halve and stuff pears, Payne says sato scoop them out with the small end of a melon baller, a small knife or a teaspoon. Pears are prone to browning once cut, but water mixed with some lemon juice can help stave off discoloration.
Here’s a rundown on flavor and appearance of some of the most common varieties as described by USA Pears, unless otherwise noted.
- “Refreshingly sweet and juicy with a hint of citrus.” Egg-shaped and bright green, sometimes with a red blush. Other than color, red and green Anjou are basically interchangeable, although Saveur magazine says the red are sweeter with less pronounced citrus undertones.
- “The Asian pear could be the love child between a pear and jicama with some melon thrown in. Its flesh is cool, crisp, juicy and firm, with diverse notes,” is how food writer David Hagedorn described them in the Post. Zaas finds them quite sweet, too. There are many varieties, but most of what you’ll come across here are round like apples and speckled, with a color that can range from olive to pale yellow.
- “Signature pear flavor with abundant juice.” Most traditional pear shape with rounded bottom and distinct neck. Green and red are similar, though, again, Saveur says red are smoother and sweeter.
- “Crisp and woodsy with a honey sweetness.” Brown with russeting on all or some of the skin, with a fully round bottom that gradually tapers into a narrow neck.
- “Succulent, buttery and exceptionally sweet.” Round with a squat neck, mostly green with some red. Often found in fruit boxes sent to you by doting aunts.
- “Crunchy and earthy with a hint of vanilla.” Yellow-green with a pointed top that expands into a round bottom.
- “Crisp, tangy and refreshingly sweet.” Bell-shaped, a little bigger than Seckel, green and red with red freckles.
- “Bite-sized, crunchy and ultra-sweet.” Chubby and round with a small neck, a mix of olive green and maroon skin. My favorite; I pop them like candy.
- “Aromatic, moist and sweet with a floral essence.” Bright red with a shape similar to Bartlett.
Which to use where
Texture is a primary factor in choosing pears for cooking. Mostly that comes down to whether the pear is firm or soft, which can be driven by the variety or the degree of ripeness.
Seckel and Bosc pears are firmer and can hold their shape, Zaas says. Whole or halved Seckels are spectacular baked into the top of a cake, and Bake From Scratch magazine recently used the shape and texture of Boscs to advantage by fanning out partially sliced whole fruit in a mesmerizing galette. The magazine also recommends Anjou as an all-purpose variety that can stand up to high temperatures, so consider them in pies and tarts.
Firmer pears — Bosc, Anjou — or less ripe specimens of the softer types are great for poaching, such as in a spiced wine mixture. They can work for slaws, grilling and sauteing, too, according to USA Pears. Pears in salads are a prime fall attraction as well. Don’t forget about Asian pears in the firm and crisp category, either, although they don’t cook well.
Bartletts break down very well, making them an ideal candidate for sauce, jam or butter. Anything that’s very soft or juicy can, of course, be eaten out of hand, as well as incorporated into soups or smoothies or spooned on top of yogurt and oatmeal.
If you want to do a simple taste test of cooked pears, Zaas recommends cutting several varieties into quarters and roasting them with a little butter. You should be able to notice their distinct flavors and textures. Similarly, try halving and coring them and filling with your choice of sweet or savory filling.
Pears lean mild and sweet, meaning they’re a perfect foil for stronger flavors. Payne suggests pairing pears with cranberries. She also recommends adding them to thicken and flavor a spinach soup, as well as dressing pears with a lemon vinaigrette that does double duty in terms of taste and keeping the fruit from browning. Another option if you like punchy is to pickle pears. Warm spices are an ideal partner, too, whether it’s cinnamon, cardamom or ginger. And dark chocolate? Yes, please.
Zaas recommends you build a cheese board that includes pears (try fresh and dried) alongside nuts. I’d start with blue cheese, goat cheese and brie.
If your theory is more like-with-like, pears go very well with their apple cousins. Almonds, with a similar mellow, floral fragrance, are always a safe bet, too.