Market Watch: Pears
It’s rough to be a pear, always compared with apples — everybody’s favorite fall fruit. But underrated pears have much to recommend them. Aromatic, juicy, and honey-sweet, they are as delicious eaten out of hand as their more popular cousins, and they stand up equally well — if not better — to cooking. The most common variety is the super-sweet Bartlett, but other types to look for include the Bosc, Anjou, Seckel, and Asian pear. The northwestern states of Oregon and Washington produce the majority of the nation’s crop. Look for them in stores and farmer’s markets in the fall through the winter and into early spring.
Pear Nutrition Facts
One medium pear provides 6 grams of fiber. That’s a third more than the average apple and about a quarter of the daily recommended value. Most of that fiber is found in the skin, which also happens to contain quercetin, an antioxidant that is thought to prevent cancer and lower blood pressure — more reason to eat them unpeeled. Pears also contain vitamin C and are an excellent source of potassium.
One of the only fruits that doesn’t ripen on the tree, pears are picked when mature, but still rock-hard. In most markets, they will be sold while still several days away from full ripeness. But left out at room temperature, their starch will turn to sugar and they will become juicy and soft in texture.
Determining maximum ripeness can be a bit of a trick. The most common variety, the Bartlett, turns golden as it ripens. Other types don’t offer such helpful visual cues. Your best bet: gently press the stem end (called “the neck”) with your thumb. If it gives a little, the pear is ripe. Certain varieties, such as Bosc and Anjou, will not be quite as soft when ready to eat. Asian pears, with their apple-like shape, are the big exception to the rule: they are generally sold ready-to-eat.
Once ripe, transfer pears to the refrigerator and use them within two to three days. Slice them just before using to keep them from turning brown, or sprinkle them with lemon juice. If you plan on poaching or cooking pears, make sure they are a bit under ripe so they'll hold their shape.
What to Do With Pears
Anything that can be done with an apple can be done with a pear. In addition to being served raw, pears bake, poach, sauté and roast better than almost any other fruit. Their velvety flesh and sweet, floral flavor is a match for strong and stinky cheeses (think all types of blue cheese, feta, or anything that oozes at room temperature), as well as nuts, salty cured meats, and flavorful salad greens.
Thinly sliced, they add a sweet counterpoint to a salad made with spicy watercress, spinach, or arugula, topped with toasted nuts and crumbled Roquefort cheese. Though any type will work, less sweet varieties like the Bosc, or the crisp Asian pear are top choices for salads.
Other quick ideas for raw pears: Serve wedges wrapped in prosciutto or another cured meat for a quick (and seasonal) holiday appetizer. Take grilled cheese to a new level by slipping in a few sliced pears. For a simple dessert, drizzle ripe, quartered pears with warm caramel or dulce de leche sauce and serve sprinkled with chopped pistachios or crumbled store-bought gingersnaps. And if you just have too many ripe pears to use up? Blend chunks of pear with buttermilk, a frozen banana, and a pinch of cardamom or cinnamon for a breakfast smoothie.
For cooking, it’s best to stick with firmer varieties such as Bosc or Anjou. They pair surprisingly well with root veggies: Combine pear wedges with parsnips and sweet potatoes and roast at high heat. Or toss quartered pears with red onion slices and chicken thighs and roast until caramelized.
Of course, pears shine in all manner of baked goods and desserts. The ultra-traditional dessert is pears poached in red wine, which can be served on its own or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. With their intense sweetness, pears partner well with sour cranberries in a rustic crisp—a nice alternative to pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, in fact, may be the best time of year to highlight pears. As an alternative to the same old mashed potatoes, you might consider mashed butternut squash and pears. They also stand out in stuffing, combined with spicy sausage and cornbread. Paired with cranberries, they make a delicious relish (see recipes, below).
You can even put them to use as a centerpiece. With their elegant bell shapes and fall colors, they’re always the prettiest fruit in the bowl.
More Pear Recipes
Anjou: aromatic, sweet and juicy; creamy flesh that stands up to baking
Bartlett: very juicy and sweet; the most popular variety
Bosc: crisp, woodsy; russet brown in color and firm when ripe
Comice: buttery and sweet; too delicate for cooking
Forelle: crisp, tangy, and sweet; ideal for snacking
Asian Pear: the oldest variety; crisp, dry, mildly sweet