Real Food Encyclopedia | Pears
Pears are often regarded as the “other” fruit, standing in the shadows of apples, but that may just be a matter of modern-day preference. With a long history of cultivation in both the East and West, and a versatility that lends themselves well to fresh, cooked and fermented preparations, pears are just as practical to grow as apples. Yet their distinctive, mellow sweetness and fresh, floral fragrance make for a more sophisticated and nuanced fruit.
Fun Facts about Pears:
- The Bartlett pear, the most popular variety in the US, was named after Enoch Bartlett, who acquired an orchard in Massachusetts around the turn of the 19th century. Not knowing that his pear varietal already had a name in Europe — Williams — he began distributing them as Bartlett pears.
- The fruit’s leaves can be smoked and often were in Europe before tobacco was imported.
- A fancier word for pear-shaped: pyriform.
What to Look for When Buying Pears
Pears range in appearance, texture and taste, especially when considering the buttery-softness and sweetness of perfectly ripe pears with their under-ripe counterparts.
- Anjou: Have both red and green varieties, and are sometimes tan or reddish-brown. When ripe, Anjou pears have a soft, creamy texture and intense flavor, with slightly grainy-textured flesh.
- Bartlett: These are either spring-green or burgundy-red in color, with smooth, shiny skins. Their surface may appear less smooth and slightly dimpled. When just ripe, Bartlett pears are very juicy and fragrant, and have a sweet, slightly tart flavor.
- Bosc: These have a gracefully long, slender top and perfectly smooth contours. Their skin is matte and tan or golden brown in color. Ripe, they’re slightly crisper than Bartlett or Anjou, and have a delicate flavor.
- Comice: These are usually light green, sometimes with a blush of red on the side. They have a similar sweet and juicy flavor as Bartletts, good for serving fresh, in salads and the like.
- Forelle: These have a short, bell-shaped appearance and often a golden color, occasionally shaded with red or orange speckles. They are prized by chefs for their smooth (read: not gritty!), juicy flesh.
- Seckel: First cultivated in Pennsylvania around the 1800s, these are the only known pear varietal domestically introduced. They are much smaller than most other pears, with smooth skins that are usually green with deep red blushes. Incredibly sweet, they are sometimes referred to as “sugar pears.”
Sustainability of Pears
Because most US production happens on the West Coast, pears are trucked throughout the country, creating significant carbon emissions. A small share of the industry today grows in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, although market share in these regions does not appear to be growing rapidly.
Chemical pesticides are used on pears. They are listed very high on the Environmental Working Groups’ Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce which means that you’re likely to find residual pesticides on conventional pears. If you’re concerned about pesticide residues, buy organic.
Pear trees have an annual harvest from late August to November, when the fruits are mature. Afterward, they can be kept in cold storage for months, much like apples and quince. The fruit are often picked before reaching tree-ripeness, however, as the ripe fruit is extremely perishable and won’t store for very long.
Much like apples, pears grow well in cool, arid and temperate climates, and they can withstand temperatures as low as minus 40 F. In the US, they are primarily grown in the river valleys of the Pacific Northwest, with its rich, volcanic soil and weather similar to Northern Europe. Most of them are European cultivars — Oregon’s Hood River County is the world’s leading producer of Anjou pears.
The pear, like the apple, is a member of the rose family. Popular subspecies are known botanically as Pyrus communis (European pears), Pyrus pyrifolia and Pyrus ussuriensis (both Asian pears). There are more than 3,000 varieties throughout the world. In Asia, varietals are known for their distinctive crisp, juicy interior and rounder shape. They’re collectively called Asian pears, for which we have a whole other entry with a ton of great information.
Pears are commonly grown for commercial production by grafting on a selected rootstock. The rootstock is a pear tree seedling, but for pear production, they are usually a dwarfing rootstock, which grows to a mature, fruit-bearing tree that is shorter and easier to manage.
Pears are most commonly shipped, sold and eaten in their raw state. But some are processed by canning-such as in cocktail fruit salads, or as jams or preserves. Pears are often juiced and blended with other juices in various soft drinks. A number of orchards and breweries in the US have taken to producing pear ciders, a trend that has been growing. A small number of specialty brands produce other fermented pear products such as liqueurs and vinegars.
Look for fruit that are unblemished and are slightly firm when you purchase them, unless you plan to eat them right away. They also smell fragrant. You can allow pears to ripen by leaving out at room temperature, uncovered, for a day or two; or you can stall the fruit’s ripening by keeping it in the refrigerator. In either case, don’t suffocate the fruit for long with airtight plastic. Without oxygen, the fruit will degrade faster and their natural moisture may encourage mold.
What pairs with pears? The answer seems to be endless. Fresh pears can be enjoyed on their own, as a snack, or in multitudes of ways: atop crusty bread with a neat slice of Brie; shredded in a crunchy slaw with jicama and carrots; dipped in yogurt and honey; or scattered on granola and pancakes. The refreshing sweetness of the fruit adds complexity to savory foods well, like a charcuterie or cheese board. Serving pears fresh showcases their crispness, which is lost in cooked preparations, so it’s a de facto preparation when one is perfectly ripe.
Like apples, though, pears can be cooked in baked goods like pies and tarts. As mentioned, they can be canned or turned into preserves and take on additional flavors in the process. A classic French dessert involves peeled pears which are poached in wine or brandy, until meltingly soft but still retaining their shape. Or simply poached pears, sweetened slightly and served with chocolate sauce.
Pears are often used in place of apples, which may contribute to their reputation as something of its underling. Instead of following a recipe that calls for apples and swapping pears in, try thinking of ways that bring out the best virtues in pears. For instance, you might not want to overbear its mellow flavor with cinnamon and nutmeg like you would with apples in a baked good. Its lovely shape and softness can be exploited as with poached pears, or as halves that are stuffed in the center and baked. Most of the time when they’re cooked, pears are peeled to avoid grainy, tough bits and specks of color. However, peels are less distracting when pears are slivered or sliced thinly to add to salads and sandwiches.
Pears are an excellent source of dietary fiber and carbohydrates. They offer a sampling of essential minerals, including copper, iron, magnesium and calcium, although much of this nutrition is found in the fruit’s skin. The flesh alone is a good source of potassium and Vitamin C, although they are not as strong of a source of antioxidants like higher-acidity fruits and leafy green vegetables.
Studies have found that the phytonutrient content of pears is overwhelmingly contained in its skin. Also, that the fruit and especially their skins provide flavonoids that are associated with a decreased risk of heart-disease and Type 2 diabetes. While they are still a moderate source of natural sugars, these flavonoids have been found to help regulate blood glucose levels by improving our insulin sensitivity.
Pears are also known for being easy to digest, hence they’re commonly fed to babies when they’re beginning to eat fruits and vegetables. This may be due to their low acidity compared with other fruits, even apples.
Top photo by @geraldinemoreno/Twenty20.