One of the great things about eating in season is, if you’ve done a good job really relishing what’s available, when that availability wanes, you’re satiated and ready for the next season’s goodies.
And right now, one of those goodies is pears.
But pears are tricky, right? We’ve all had the experience of biting into one that’s not only not sweet, it leaves us with a puckering, tannin-like sensation in the mouth. No bueno.
So here’s everything you need to know to pick a perfect pear, avoid the pucker, and spend the next few months eating nothing but delicious, sweet, fragrant, tender, peak-season pomes. In this Mixed Greens with Pears, Bacon, Gruyère, and Warm Mustard Vinaigrette salad, perhaps (photos below).
Why that puckering happens. When pears are picked, typically they’re mature but not yet ripe. Which means that most of the time, they’re still not ripe when they get to the store. They don’t taste good simply because they’re not ready to eat.
(This will be a little less so for farmers market pears. Because there’s less time between picking and selling, those growers can leave the fruit on the tree a little longer without fear of it becoming overripe before it gets to market.)
Here’s what you can do about it. Plan for that pears aren’t going to be ripe when you buy them. Allow for a few days on the kitchen counter before they’re ready. If you want to speed up ripening, put them in a paper bag while they’re on the kitchen counter. If you want to speed it up even more, add a banana or an apple to the bag.
(Why does a paper bag work? It doesn’t actually have to be paper—just a closed-ish container of some sort. And it works because all produce gives off ethylene gas as it ripens, and an ethylene-rich environment promotes faster ripening. So the bag keeps your pears in their own little ripening chamber. Some produce, like apples and bananas, are particularly prolific ethylene emitters, so adding one of them to the bag makes the environment even more ethylene-y, speeding ripening even more.)
Here’s how to tell when your pear is ripe. Gently press the fruit at the top near the stem—or, as USA Pears says, “check the neck.” If it has some give, it’s ripe. It might take 3 or 4 days for this to happen. But it’s worth the wait for a truly yummy pear.
The only pear for which this isn’t true is an Asian pear. Asian pears are the ones that are more apple-shaped than pear-shaped and are juicier and crunchier than “regular” pears. They’re ideal when they have a firmer, more apple-like texture versus the slightly softer texture of a perfect pear. (Although I do like Asian pears a tad softer than rock hard.)
Once your pears are ripe, move them to the refrigerator to help them stay that way.
(Fun fact. Pears ripen from the inside out. Which is why sometimes when you do cut into a ripe pear, the fruit near the core can be too ripe and almost mushy while the fruit closer to the skin is perfect.)
If you’ll be cooking, because they’ll soften with heat, pears can be firm-ripe instead of the soft-ripe texture you might want for eating raw. Asian pears are again an exception—they won’t soften with cooking.
What to look for at the store. Even though you’re unlikely to find a ripe pear at the store, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can look for to ensure it’s close to ripe and that when it does ripen it’ll be the tastiest pear possible.
Avoid cuts, indentations, and dark or mushy spots. Browning on a pear’s thin skin, though, isn’t unusual and it’s not a sign of a less-than-ideal pear.
Look for good color. Most pears are green, but a green that’s starting to become more yellow or golden will indicate a soon-to-be-ripe, full-flavored pear. In brown-ish Boscs, the undertone will go from green to more yellow. And red Bartletts will go from dark red to a brighter, more garnet-like red as they ripen.
Smell. Even before it’s ripe, a good pear should have a lovely fragrance—or at least the beginnings of one.
Using pears. Some of my favorite places for pears include fall salads, like Mixed Greens with Pears, Bacon, Gruyère, and Warm Mustard Vinaigrette. They’re also perfect for cheese plates, with yogurt and granola for breakfast, added to a simple pan sauce for pork or lamb, and even added to roasted root vegetables. Try poached pears on their own, with cheese, or over ice cream or cake. Add pears to cranberry sauce and scones. And sandwiches and stuffings. A pear pie, tart, or crisp can be wonderfully fall-icious. And pear wedges wrapped in prosciutto with a dab of blue cheese and a sprig of arugula makes an easy and casually elegant app.
As you’ve surely noticed, pears, like apples, can brown pretty quickly once you cut into them. So like apples, if you’re using them raw, toss pears with a little water and lemon juice or other acidic liquid to help prevent that.
And speaking of apples, as you’ve also surely noticed, you can substitute pears for apples in most recipes. And vice versa.
Here’s why this topic is near and dear to my heart. When I moved to Napa over 20 years ago, Copia—which is now part of the Culinary Institute of America—was just about to open. It was billed as “the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts,” its legacy co-founders were Julia Child and Robert Mondavi, and it had hot- and cold-running food classes, wine classes, art exhibits, and events. Overall a pretty big deal. Being new to town and a recovering restauranteur floundering around for what’s next, I volunteered to be a food program docent. During our training/orientation, my fellow docents and I were each given a topic for a “test” presentation, and I was assigned pears—not a particular favorite at the time because I didn’t yet know how to tell when they were ripe.
Preparing for my presentation, I learned how to pick a perfect pair and have been a pear fan ever since. And that presentation led to Copia hiring me as a culinary instructor, something I’d never done before but that I still do and love all these years later (though not at Copia).
So—yay for pears. They can change your life!
But seriously, it’s pear season. So buy some, take them home, wait until they’re ripe, and check by pressing gently near the stem. Then make Mixed Greens with Pears, Bacon, Gruyère, and Warm Mustard Vinaigrette and savor the new season.
Recipes for relishing pears:
Mixed Greens with Pears, Bacon, Gruyère, and Warm Mustard Vinaigrette
Wild Rice, Pear, and Roasted Sweet Potato Salad with Walnuts
Fresh Fruit Parfaits with Raw Sugar and Whipped Crème Fraiche
Recipes where you can substitute pears for apples:
Cranberry and Apple Sauce
Sauteed Chicken with Parsnip, Apple, and Sherry Pan Sauce