In this age of hyper-hybridized produce for large-scale cultivation and shipping, the pear is a rare fruit that has been mercifully left alone; the varieties you see in markets today are pretty much unchanged from over a century ago. About 3,000 varieties exist worldwide. Pears require quite specific conditions to thrive and are very vulnerable to disease and blights; thus, nearly 95 percent of the US crop is grown in the drier climes of California, Oregon, and Washington.
Pears are quite unusual among fruits in that they ripen from the inside out; this explains why we often get pears that look ripe and delicious on the outside but reveal disappointing mushy, brown rottenness radiating from their cores. For this reason, pears need to be picked when they are still hard, and ripened afterward; tree-ripened fruit is almost always spoiled. Still, guessing that exact moment when pears are at their sweetest, juiciest, and most flavorful is an elusive, frustrating art; as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.”
Here are a few types of pears you might find in your CSA box or at your farmers market.
- Anjou: This is a large, slightly squat pear that comes in either red or bright green. Its flesh is on the firmer side, with a mellow, slightly spicy flavor and a smooth, juicy texture. It is great for cooking as well as for eating raw.
- Asian: Contrary to popular belief, Asian pears are not crosses between apples and regular pears, even though their characteristics might lead you to believe otherwise. Many Asian pears have the rounded shape of apples, and their flesh is crisp, not melting. However, their flavor is distinctively pear-like, with some notes of honey and spice, and they can be quite juicy.
- Bartlett: This greenish-gold or red fruit epitomizes classic pear flavor and shape. When ripe, its flesh is meltingly soft, very juicy, and fragrant, with citrusy notes. It is fantastic for eating fresh (indeed it is hard to imagine consuming it any other way), but it’s also a popular canning and baking pear.
- Bosc: This variety has a very distinct russet brown skin and a slender, tapered neck. Its sweet flesh has assertively smoky, almost musky notes, and its firmness makes it outstanding for poaching and baking, since it doesn’t fall apart in cooking.
- Comice: Often considered the queen of pears, the Comice is unrivaled in peardom for its complex flavor, buttery texture, floral fragrance, and dripping juiciness. The season for these squat, wide-bottomed green gems is always eagerly awaited and way too brief.
- Concorde: This variety resembles a green Bosc, with a long, tapering neck. It’s a pleasant pear, sweet with vanilla notes, and good for baking and poaching. Its flesh does not brown in the air as quickly as other pears, making it especially good in salads and as a garnish.
- Seckel: These tiny, chubby pears are uncommon, but well worth pouncing on if you come across them. They range from dark green with a maroon blush to nearly all red, with very dense, super-sweet flesh that has a rich, winey, spicy taste. They make excellent poached pears and, because of their petite size, make beautiful individual servings.
To anyone who has ever savored a pear in its full glory, it won’t be any surprise that pears are very high in fruit sugars. But they also contain significant amounts of vitamins C and K, as well as some riboflavin, folate, magnesium, potassium, manganese, and copper. A single medium pear contains about 100 calories.
Pears are one of the few fruits and vegetables that, even as a commercial crop, has a specific season. The Anjou is typically available year-round, but September is when the Bartletts, Boscs, and Comices show up, and October is really when pears hit their peak.
Different pear varieties vary widely in texture, color, flavor, and degree of firmness at their prime, but all good pears should be smooth-skinned, heavy for their size, and plump with no signs of desiccation or large bruised areas (although pears with soft spots are often just fine for cooking). Two signs of perfect ripeness: if a pear gives slightly just below its stem, and a profuse perfume.
Pears ripen very well at home, so there’s no need to worry if the pears you find at the market or in your CSA box are as hard as rocks. Keep them at room temperature until they start to soften. You can hasten their ripening by placing them in a paper bag with a ripe apple or banana; their combined ethylene gas will do the trick. Once the pears have ripened to the point you like, store them in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator.
- Pears are wonderful in pies and tarts, either by themselves or with other fruits like apples and quince. Brown sugar, maple, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract, and lemon are terrific flavor complements.
- Instead of applesauce, make pear sauce! This is a good way to process and preserve a lot of pears at one time, and it makes an excellent snack, breakfast food, kid treat, or topping for cottage cheese.
- Cut up pears and combine them with other fruits and berries for a fruit salad.
- Sometimes the simple things are best—like pear slices with a little whipped cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. Or poached pears drizzled with warm chocolate sauce.
- Baked or poached pears are an easy dessert that taste especially grand on cold winter days. So are pear crisps, crumbles, and cobblers.
- Add pears to vegetable salads for extra crunch and sweetness. They go especially well with nuts, celery, bacon, and beets.
- If you have a perfectly ripe Comice pear, not much can—or should—be done to improve it. Serve it with fresh walnuts, a little blue cheese, and some port or sherry, and your day will improve by leaps and bounds.
- Use halved, scooped-out pears as handy holders for oatmeal or fruit.
- Pears are lovely in jams, jellies, chutneys, and fruit salsas; take advantage of their brief season to cook and prepare them in ways for savoring long after the fresh fruit is a distant memory.
Picture credits, from top to bottom: By circleps, Anastasia Izofatova, and vanillaechoes, all of Adobe Stock.