Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: 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. Its tapered shape and broad bottom has given way to the term "pear-shaped," recalling the Boticcelli Venus' figure. Pears make an attractive addition to cheese plates, and they are often paired with foods of a more acquired taste.

Brief History

It's unclear when exactly pears were first eaten or cultivated, but the fruit's history can be roughly divided by its two main sub-species: the European pear and the Asian pear. Some sources cite the European pear enjoying popularity since the Bronze Age and that the Asian pear has enchanted eaters since 5000 BC. We know that the Romans ate pears (Homer referred to them as "a gift of the gods") and spread them throughout Europe. Thanks to its thriving in cool, temperate climates, the pear has been enjoyed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from Scandinavia to Japan. Celtic languages have a word for "pear" in their ancient dialects. The Renaissance masters were fond of including pears in still-life portraits, and the Belgians and French are credited with developing many species of pear that we still grow today-Anjou (or D'Anjou), Bosc and Comice, for example.

In the US, early colonists imported pears from Europe, a habit that continued even after they began cultivating them in the New World. (Now, does it seem any surprise that receiving pears in fancy boxes has lived on with such mail-order retailers as Harry & David?) However, the US today grows more than 850,000 tons of pears annually, mostly in Washington State and Oregon. The US imports pears primarily from South America and Asia, although it exports more pears than it imports.

Factual Nibbles

  • There are more than 250 certified organic farms in the US producing over 20,000 tons of pears.
  • Prickly pear, a type of cactus with edible fruits and pads, are unrelated to pears.
  • In China, pears are associated with immortality, so it's bad luck when a pear tree falls.
  • 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. 
  • You can put that in your pipe and smoke it: Pear leaves can be smoked and often were in Europe before tobacco was imported.
  • Renaissance painters weren't the only ones infatuated with pears. Pears have been interpreted in popular works of art from the likes of Paul Cezanne, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso.
  • A fancier word for pear-shaped: pyriform.

Cultivation

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 of pears throughout the world. Within the European species, common varieties include Bartlett, Bosc, Anjou, red Bartletts, red Anjou, Comice, Concord and Seckel. In Asia pear varietals are known for their distinctive crisp, juicy interior and rounder shape. They're collectively called Asian pears, or sometimes "nashi" pears, which translates to pear in Japanese. But there are numerous varieties of these as well, such as Hosui, Shinseiki, Chinese white pear (Bai Li) and Chinese duck pear (Ya Li).

Much like apples, pears grow well in cool, arid and temperate climates, and they can withstand temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 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 of pears--Oregon's Hood River County is the world's leading producer of Anjou pears. But in more recent decades, Asian pear varieties have been grown in the US as well.

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 pears 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.

Seasonality

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. Pears are often picked before reaching tree-ripeness, however, as ripe pears are extremely perishable and won't store for very long.

Environmental Impact

Because most US pear production happens on the West Coast, pears are trucked throughout the country, creating massive carbon emissions. A small share of the pear industry today grows in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, although market share in these regions does not appear to be growing rapidly.

Pears are vulnerable to chemical pesticides, much like any tree fruit that has an edible surface. These fruit have been found to have residue from up to 40 known pesticides used in commercial orchards. And most of them do not simply wash away with water alone. Aside from buying organic fruit, pears' chemical residue can be alleviated with the help of detergent, vinegar and commercial fruit cleaners, as well as peeling them. See our Real Food Rule of Thumb.*

Characteristics

Pears range in appearance, texture and taste, especially when considering the buttery-softness and sweetness of perfectly ripe pears with their under-ripe counterparts. The optimal qualities of several different types of pears are described below.

Anjou pears come in 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.

Asian pears are often full and round in shape, with rough, matte skins (which are usually peeled before eating). They are extremely crisp and juicy, less dense and grainier in texture than most European pear varieties. Their tastes may range from barely-sweet to tangy and sharp, depending on the variety and the proximity of the flesh to the core.

Bartlett pears 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 pears 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 pears are usually light green, sometimes with a blush of red on the side. They have a similar sweet and juicy flavor as Bartlett pears, good for serving fresh, in salads and the like.

Forelle pears 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 pears were first cultivated in Pennsylvania around the 1800s, making them 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."

Nutrition

Pears are an excellent source of dietary fiber and carbohydrates. It offers 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 pears 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 pears and especially their skins provide flavonoids that are associated with a decreased risk of heart-disease and type 2 diabetes. While pears 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. Pears are sometimes also credited as being "hypoallergenic" for the relatively low number of reactions people have toward them.

What to Do with It

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 pears 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.

There are recipes for homemade pear wines, ciders and vinegars if you're feeling crafty and have juices or fruits that are somewhat past their prime.

Storage

Look for pears 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 pears for long with airtight plastic. Without oxygen, pears will degrade faster and their natural moisture may encourage mold.

Cooking Tips

Pears are so 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.

Recipes

Sweet and savory! Here are two simple ideas for this fall's pear harvest.

Roasted Cauliflower and Romanesco Salad with Pears and Maple Vinaigrette

From Not Eating Out in New York

(makes 2-3 servings)

12 small head cauliflower, trimmed to small florets of even sizes
12 small head romanesco, trimmed to small florets of even sizes
handful of romesco and cauliflower leaves
1 firm pear, any type, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
few leaves fresh thyme (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss all the florets and leaves in 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, or just until lightly coated, and a couple pinches of sea salt. Arrange in a single layer on a roasting sheet and roast for 8-10 minutes, or just until lightly browned in parts. Let cool for a few moments before transferring to a bowl.

Whisk the vinegar, maple syrup and about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small bowl. Drizzle on the cooling vegetables and toss lightly with the pears. Transfer to a plate and serve warm with the optional fresh thyme for garnish.

Simple Pear Tart

From Not Eating Out in New York

(makes 1 9″ ; tart)

for the crust:
34 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
12 teaspoon salt

for the filling:
2 large or 3 medium pears, slightly under-ripe
1 tablespoon sugar plus 1 more tablespoon for sprinkling
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Cream the butter, sugar and salt in a bowl. Beat in the egg and gradually incorporate the flour until dough comes together into a ball. Roll the dough onto parchment paper and carefully peel to place into a 9″ ; pie or tart pan. (Alternately, you can just smash the dough out by hand and press it into the pan in an even layer with your fingers.) Let the dough come about one inch high around the edges, and straighten them out into a neat rim. Refrigerate crust in the pan for 15-20 minutes, as you prepare the filling.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel the pears and cut into quarters. Remove the cores from each wedge, and slice them into roughly 1/8″ ; slices lengthwise. Toss with 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the lemon juice and cornstarch. Arrange the pears in a fan-like array into the chilled pan of dough. Sprinkle the top evenly with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until the edges are just lightly golden-brown. Let chill at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving.


(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)

This post was originally published in September 2014.