The problem with the pear is the same problem that afflicts the apricot and the cantaloupe. When ripe, and fresh, and of good quality, it is spectacular, but it is a low-percentage fruit, its ripeness difficult to divine and often misjudged. I would wager there are literally millions of pear-eaters who have never had a good pear.
And that is unfortunate, because it is really an excellent fruit. Cheap, easily available, some varieties fairly hardy, with a wide variety of textures and flavors and uses, pears may not be quite as easy and foolproof as apples, but can make a fine walking-around fruit in addition to the more adjustment-friendly methods you might put them to in the kitchen.
There are dozens of varieties of pear, but in the States it is damnably difficult to find most of the weirder heirloom varieties. Still, a trip to an fancy grocery store or farmers market in the late autumn will yield a few different types. What they have in common, aside from all being pears, are called sclereids, or stone cells. These are plant tissue with a distinct hard exterior, hence their name, and are responsible for the “gritty” texture of pears. I think some people do not like this texture; it can get stuck in your teeth. But that is merely a symbol of the inherent toughness of the pear! Pear trees can live for over a hundred years, their wood is so fine and hard that it’s often used for woodwind instruments, and in some parts of Chinese mythology it’s a symbol of immortality! This concludes the Fun Facts section of today’s Crop Chef.
Here are the most common varieties of pear in the US and how to tell if they’re ripe. It’s tricky because the majority of pears never ripen on the tree; they can only ripen when picked. To speed up ripening, you can stick a banana in the fruit bowl, and to slow down ripening, you can put the pear in the fridge. But how do you know when it’s ripe in the first place?
Bosc Pear: This is the elongated matte brown pear. Moderately crisp and very fibrous, it’s the easiest to tell when ripe. Look up near the stem, on top of the pear. When the pear is ripe, the skin around the stem will be slightly wrinkly, and very slightly soft to the touch, but the rest of the pear will still be firm. If the body of the pear is soft at all, forget it, it’s rotten.
Seckel Pear: These are the miniature green/yellow/red pears that look like the pear version of crabapples — too impossibly tiny to be good, right? WRONG. These are my favorite pears, I think. The flavor is really intense, but they’re not astringent at all like you might expect from their doll-like size. Don’t bother waiting for them to change color; they will, but it won’t indicate anything about ripeness. Instead, press them gently about a third of the way down from the stem. It should be a little soft there, not quite as soft as a ripe avocado, but still firm lower down.
Bartlett/Red Bartlett: The most common type of pear sold in North America is technically called the Williams’ Bon Chrétien. Great name, but a tough pear. The two color morphs taste the same — the color is a mutation that doesn’t affect flavor or texture — so I go for the regular green/yellow variety, because it’s much easier to tell when it’s ripe. You have to treat these like bananas: they’ll be hard and not very sweet when green, and as they turn yellow, they’ll get softer and sweeter. The window in which these are perfectly yellow and ripe-avocado-soft is like a single day, so as soon as they get to that point, stick them in the fridge and/or eat immediately.
D’Anjou: Looks like a Bartlett, but is both tastier — richer, sweeter — and harder to ripen. It’s green, and the same shape as a standard Bartlett, but it won’t change color. You’ll have to check if it’s ripe the same way you do with a Seckel pear: push with your thumb up near the stem, and when it’s slightly soft but the rest of the fruit is firm, it’s ripe.
Comice: The biggest dickhead pear of them all is the Comice, because, well, it’s the best. It’s the biggest and tastiest, super sweet and juicy and incredibly powerful in flavor. When it’s properly ripe, you’ll almost want to eat it with a spoon; it seems too delicate to chomp into. You can tell if it’s ripe by the same near-the-stem test as the D’Anjou and Seckel, but the Comice is really thin-skinned and delicate, and basically impossible to find a flawless one. It’ll look bruised and knocked-around pretty much no matter what.
Forelle: Another toy-sized pear, the Forelle is a little bigger than the Seckel, and I think not quite as tasty (it’s a bit milder in flavor), but still very good, and very easy to assess. It’ll turn yellow and then sprout little freckles all over it like a redhead in the summertime. When it’s all freckled, it’s good to go.
Asian Pear: There are a few different types of these, but the most common is an apple-shaped, light russetted brown pear that is sometimes seen sitting in its own tiny foam nest. Pears as we know them today probably originated in China, and this one is totally different from the European and North American varieties: it is often huge, and expensive, and with a mild flavor and obscenely crisp texture, boasting a snap a Honeycrisp only wishes it had. Asian pears are the exception in that they do ripen on the tree, and won’t really ripen that much afterward, so it’s up to you as a shopper to make sure you get a good one. An unripe Bosc or Forelle can be home-ripened and made delicious, but an unripe Asian pear will forever be sort of sour and shitty. So! Your Asian pear should be unblemished, and feel a little bit heavy for its size (heaviness indicates a higher sugar content, which is what we want). Give the Asian pear a good smell; it should smell a bit sweet. That’s pretty much all you’ve got to go on. Sorry. But they’re really good.
Prickly Pear: Is not a pear. Also wear gloves when you handle it because it’s full of spines.
Mostly, I prefer to eat pears as is; the softer varieties like the Comice and Bartlett fall apart immediately when exposed to heat, and are just one of those fruits that’s best eaten rapidly over the sink as the juice coats your chin and sinks into your beard and causes your girlfriend to later pick small bits of pear out of your beard because you’re a disgusting human. That said: There are ways to prepare the pear.
If you’ve got unripe pears but you want to eat them right now, there are a few ways to do that. One is a classic poached pear, which is uncool but also really good, so whatever. This works fine with pretty much any pear except a ripe Comice, which will turn to mush. Peel three or four pears (this is one of the very few times you should peel a pear), cut in half length-wise, and scoop out the (very small) core and seeds with a spoon. In a saucepan, heat up about half a bottle of rich red wine of some sort (I don’t know anything about wine and won’t pretend to) and half again as much water, and add a small knob of sliced ginger, a stick of cinnamon, and a lemon peel. When hot, stir in about a cup of sugar (I use demerara but it doesn’t matter, I don’t think). The amount of sugar will vary a little based on how bad your pears are; you may have to experiment to get this right, but if it’s wrong you can just add more sugar or more liquid. Anyway, dissolve the sugar and then bring the mixture to a boil, then add your pears, and keep the liquid at a simmer for about 20 minutes until your pears are soft. Serve with vanilla ice cream or Greek yogurt sweetened with honey.
I have a whole bunch of recipes that can change slightly depending on what’s in season, so let’s repurpose that old roasted brussels sprouts and grapes recipe for early winter, by making it a sprouts and pears recipe! Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Get a whole mess of brussels sprouts, I don’t know how many, like 20 maybe, and trim the stalk and slice them in half the way we’ve been doing ever since we stopped boiling them whole and started liking them. Put them in a big mixing bowl along with a handful of shelled pistachio nuts (pecans and almonds also work well). Slice half an onion and put that in the mixing bowl too. Then get a ripe or slightly underripe Bosc pear and cut it into pieces a little bit larger than your sprouts, and throw it in the bowl too. Pour in some olive oil and some dried thyme (fresh if you have it, but it’s December, everything’s dead) and mix it all up, then pour it all out onto a baking sheet. Turn all the sprouts so they’re cut-side-down, and separate everything so nothing’s touching or too close together, then roast at 400 degrees until the sprouts are browned on the bottom. To serve: season with salt and black pepper and a squeeze of lemon on top.
Another weird thing to make with slightly unripe pears is pear chips. Bosc is probably the best for this, but I’ve used shitty Bartletts that refuse to ripen and had good results. Pre-heat your oven to its lowest setting, which is probably around 150 degrees. Using a mandoline, slice the pears very thinly — not paper thin, more like cardboard box thin. Oil a baking sheet with vegetable oil, just a little bit. Lay the pears down so they’re not overlapping or touching, and roast at 150. After like 90 minutes, flip them and see what they look like; they should be a little bit golden, like apple chips. The entire process could take like four hours, it all depends on the type of pear. You can make these sweet by sprinkling them at the outset with a little cinnamon and sugar, but I kind of like them just the way they are.
If you’ve got slightly overripe pears, you’re probably out of luck, but if they’re just like a little smooshy in spots but not quite dry and mealy, you might be able to make vanilla bourbon pear sauce. (This also works with ripe pears, and slightly unripe pears, of any variety!) Slice three pears into small slices, pretty thin and no bigger than an inch square. Heat up a dutch oven or equivalent on medium and throw in a third of a stick of butter to melt. When melted, toss in your pears and stir around, then add your sweetener. I use honey, because I love honey, but brown sugar works just as well. The amount will vary; if your pears are overripe, add no more than a tablespoon. If underripe, add more. Taste it and see if you want it to be sweeter. Add in a pinch of salt as well. Stir this all around until combined and starting to become a little syrupy, then add a glug of bourbon and a few drops of vanilla extract (or the seeds of one vanilla bean if you’re some kind of hotshot). It will smell extremely alcoholic. Bring this mix up to heat and then turn the stove down to low and let it simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced to a syrup and it no longer smells like booze. Serve with ice cream or on top of oatmeal or on of oatmeal with a scoop of ice cream on top of that.
This column may not be enough to convince you to buy more pears. And it’s okay if you’d rather go for the easier fruits, the apples and peaches of the world which reveal their flavor at the slightest glance or whiff. Pears are harder, sure. But I’d argue that pear sauce is far better than applesauce, and that a proper pear — a really good one, a really ripe one — is an experience better than any apple can give. Sometimes a dozen shitty pears can make that perfect 13th that much better.
Photo by Brad K.